In an era dominated by threats of natural catastrophe, global pandemic and technological change, the possibility of extinction lies not just in the future but also at the very limits of our present ability to comprehend the world and our own natures. Eugene Thacker, associate professor in media at the New School in New York, retraces these limits across a range of philosophical, fictional and poetic sources, from the writings of medieval mystics to the modern horror genre.
Interview: Giovanni Menegalle / Portrait: Eugene Thacker
Giovanni Menegalle This year has seen the publication of the final two volumes in your trilogy, Horror of Philosophy. Could you explain some of the ideas behind this project?
Eugene Thacker The whole project came about as a result of two influences. The first was my lifelong fascination with the horror genre, especially supernatural horror. I grew up in the era of home video, graphic novels and video games and I didn’t really like reading until I discovered Poe and Lovecraft. Most fiction I found utterly boring. But with authors like Poe and Lovecraft, I discovered stories that seemed to hover between prose and poetry, describing a whole universe that seemed at once terrifying, lyrical, mysterious and unknown. They wrote concept-driven stories, stories in which there was less interest in human characters and human drama, and more emphasis on the futility and limitations of being human. That struck a chord with me then and still does today.
The other influence was philosophy, which I encountered later on as a student, especially Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. They’re not your typical philosophers, and I wasn’t the typical philosophy student. In fact, a professor once told me that if I wanted to study philosophy I should avoid the philosophy department; I’m not sure if it was the right thing to do, but I took his advice. I’ve always been drawn to those philosophers who somehow work against philosophy, but in the key of philosophy. I’ve never believed in the grand, systematic, theory-of-everything type of philosophy, though I have a great admiration for thinkers like Aristotle and Kant. But I just don’t think we as human beings are so amazing that we can just sit down and figure it all out. At some point, when you’re immersed in all these arguments, concepts, methods and ontologies, you start to become suspicious that the entire thing is just an elaborate game we’ve made up for ourselves to pass the time – a zero-sum game. More attractive to me were those philosophers who posed questions without answers, who posed problems without solutions.
Eventually it seemed to me that these two influences – supernatural horror and anti-philosophy – were basically talking about the same thing, but using different tactics. And they intersect in the idea that the pinnacle of our species is the articulation of the futility of the species. This is especially the case today, where the more we know about the world the less we understand, and we’ve managed to enclose ourselves in the warm security bubble of social media at the same time as we feverishly measure the extent of climate change and global-resource restrictions. We lack a real philosophy of futility, a philosophy of disenchantment. But then again, how could such a philosophy ever exist? And how unhelpful it would be. It would seem to be doomed from the start. I find that strangely inspiring. Every attempt at a philosophy of horror eventually turns in on itself and becomes a horror of philosophy.
GM Horror is commonly associated with the supernatural. But you seem to suggest that it can also be understood as a kind of experiential or aesthetic gateway to a non-human reality. Would you say you were committed to a form of philosophical realism?
ET I suppose I should be, given the trendiness of realisms and materialisms in philosophy discussions these days. But I have to confess, I find philosophical realism to be both presumptuous and naïve. And “speculative realism” is an oxymoron. Perhaps there is such a thing as a “cold rationalism”, but its only truth claim can be that of agnosticism. It’s true that much supernatural horror does offer this furtive, fragile glimpse into some kind of “beyond”. But I wouldn’t say that its purpose is to provide a reliable point of access to the beyond, much less to render it as knowable or instrumental. At its best, supernatural horror points to a fundamental paradox: the futility of the attempt to think something that has been defined as outside of thought. There’s a kind of pre-philosophical article of faith that is required for the philosophical endeavour, especially those that make claims for realism: that we, as thinking human beings, can both stand apart from the world and be enmeshed in it at the same time.
Philosophy in the West only becomes interesting to me when we abandon some of the primary functions that it has been historically endowed with. Foremost of these is the explanatory function of philosophy, the know-it-all function, that philosophy’s job is to account for what exists. Many thinkers, Schopenhauer included, have questioned the sufficiency of the various principles of sufficient reason. Another unfortunate aspect of philosophy is its therapeutic function, that philosophy’s job is to help people live better, happier or more meaningful lives. Today this has become the domain of pop philosophy books that wallow in an imaginary, highly romanticised profundity of the human species.
GM In Starry Speculative Corpse, you cite a letter by Kant in which he describes his own depressive condition 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)”. This seems to suggest an opposition between radical negative affect and human rationality. Does this sound right to you, and if so, how would you situate your work in relation to it?
ET I’m very weary of simply aligning pessimism, nihilism, scepticism and the like with “the irrational”. This was the problem with many of the attempts to popularise existentialism in the mid-20th century. Pessimism, nihilism, etc. all involve an exploration of a logic of negation in philosophical terms, but this doesn’t mean that something like pessimism is simply an abandonment of rationality. I teach a seminar on pessimism and this is frequently a topic of discussion, especially with texts that hover in that space between philosophy and literature. What’s interesting about the negativity in these ways of thinking is that they do have a logic to them that is no more or less rigorous than other forms of logic. It’s just that with these ways of thinking there’s a greater openness to contradiction, paradox, aporia and the like. Traditionally these were thought to be problem areas for philosophy in the West, but there’s another view that suggests contradiction is actually a constitutive part of philosophy, and not simply a sign of a failure of logical rigour or consistency. This is especially the case in the scholarship on classical Indian logicians like Nagarjuna, as well as in recent work on “paraconsistency” and the like. So-called pessimism, nihilism, certain forms of scepticism – all these are particularly adept at pointing out the centrality of logical inconsistency to philosophy.
GM How did you arrive at the concept of “cosmic pessimism”? At first sight, it looks like an exercise in extreme anti-humanism and nihilism, but it appears to betray a deeper concern with the possibility of positive transformation. What do you think about this?
ET Well, yes and no. Yes, the initial impulse was to drive the logic of pessimism all the way to the end, wherever that may lead. But I realised how naïve that was (in part because many other thinkers prior had already done this – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Mainländer being key examples). Also, it became apparent to me that any philosophy engaging with pessimism would have to account for the status of philosophy today, a context in which what is increasingly apparent to us is the indifference of the world in which we live and against which we struggle on a daily basis, and professional philosophy’s struggles to maintain its status as “scientific”. Philosophy today would have to consider its own limitations, its own futility vis-à-vis the self-world relationship, its own failure to ever adequately comprehend even the most basic, primordial philosophical questions, such as: why does anything exist rather than not exist?
So no, there’s no “positive transformation” here. I mean, maybe there is and I’m not even aware of it – but if there is any positive transformation I assure you it’s purely accidental or incidental. The idea of “cosmic pessimism” was really about scaling pessimism above and below the scale of the human being and its human concerns living in a human-made world. But more importantly, it also expresses a deep suspicion about the Greek termkosmos, that is, order, system, unity. Who says that there is any order to the universe, to life, to existence itself? There may be, but there may not be. And if there is, what presumptuousness to think we can magically figure it out through the architectonic conceptual chess matches we call philosophy, religion, science…
GM Glenn Beck featured In the Dust of This Planet on one of his programmes. He warned against a general surge in “pop nihilism” and mentioned the influence of your book on the character of Rust Cohle in True Detective and Jay-Z having the book cover printed on the back of his jacket in the “Run” video with Beyoncé. I know you’ve dismissed this as meaningless hype before, but don’t you think it’s interesting that Glenn Beck is talking about nihilism as an existential threat to conservatism? He even said, “There’s a chemical reason we’re drawn to it.” He’s kind of right, no?
ET I watched the Glenn Beck episode and it was difficult to make sense of it; he did seem concerned, even alarmed by it all, but if you actually take each of his statements one by one, they don’t really add up to a single point. I just assumed it was like all media these days, which operate in a mode of perpetual panic – smoke and mirrors, a lot of noise and hype, with no real substance. We forget it all a week later anyways because there’s something new to be worried about.
What’s interesting about nihilism is that, on the one hand, it can be easily aligned with this or that cause, be it on the far left or the far right. Nihilism is easy to co-opt into whatever cause it is that you’re selling. But at that very moment it ceases to be nihilism, precisely because it’s been put in the service of some set of values, ideologies, agendas, whatever. Nietzsche understood this about nihilism. It’s a fundamentally untenable position. Hence its allure for some people. Eventually nihilism must negate itself – it must negate everything, even the belief in nihilism. That’s why I don’t think there can really be a nihilist politics or nihilist philosophy or nihilist art. Maybe there can’t even be nihilism.
GM In books like Biomedia and The Global Genome you talk about how biotechnology and bioinformatics are transforming the way we think about the very concept of “life”. You argue that our capacity to encode and decode biological materials into and out of digital form is challenging the distinction between natural and artificial. You also mention “tactical media”, “post-media” and “bioart” as possible critical responses to this challenge. Could you talk about this?
ET Some of the earlier work I’ve done was basically focused on the ways in which we as human beings are made – literally made, as in designed, engineered and vat-grown. At that time it seemed that a whole set of bleeding-edge technologies was not only making new devices or tools, but also fundamentally questioning some of our most basic conceptual dichotomies, such as the natural-artificial, biology-technology, human-machine distinctions. I found these areas of science and technology intriguing because they seemed like science fiction, better than science fiction, in fact. So there was this interest in the relationship between science and science fiction. But at the core of those works is the idea of the human dissipating like a mirage, as “life” gets scaled up or scaled down, the level of biocomplex ecologies or the level of the microbiological and nanobiological – and sometimes they become one and the same – effectively cutting out the meso-scale of human beings altogether. Really, everything I’ve written has been about one of two things: the unhuman outside the human, and the unhuman within the human.
GM You’ve also written quite a bit about black metal and taken part in the Black Metal Theory Conference in London. What’s your take on Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s “Transcendental Black Metal” manifesto? He argues that the haptic void constitutes the highest point of intensity in black metal, but that it’s also a “lie”, as it doesn’t really exist, and that only transcendental black metal can make it true by negating it. What do you make of this?
ET I find black metal theory interesting because it ranges so much, from detailed scholastic commentary to blackened prose poetry to people like Hunter who are also musicians and lyricists. But I don’t really think about whose theory of black metal is the most “blackened” or anything. I’ve participated in several of the events, and in a way, it’s funny how the entire context mitigates against discussion, against question-and-answer sessions, and so on. People basically present their work, and there it is, engage or not, take it or leave it. I’m not here to tell you, finally, the way things really are or to sell you my amazing theory, and I certainly don’t expect to get any helpful feedback or constructive criticism. I mean, really, by the time a person gets up to give a lecture or perform a reading it’s too late for feedback, and no one really cares, least of all the person giving the lecture. You’re going to say what you’re going to say, some of it might be interesting, a lot of it will be unremarkable, and there it is. I think it’s important to remember the reflexive element in all this, too. Yes, everyone is “serious” in what they’re saying, but I think part of the “fun” – if we can use that word here – is also in upending academic discourse, a bit tongue-in-cheek but also without any scare quotes. Taking it too seriously. §
Cosmic Pessimism, published by Univocal, is out now.