As you are aware, I have never been able to soothe myself with the sugary delusions of religion; for these things stand convicted of the utmost absurdity in light of modern scientific knowledge. With Nietzsche, I have been forced to confess that mankind as a whole has no goal or purpose whatsoever, but is a mere superfluous speck in the unfathomable vortices of infinity and eternity. Accordingly, I have hardly been able to experience anything which one could call real happiness; or to take as vital an interest in human affairs as can one who still retains the hallucination of a “great purpose” in the general plan of terrestrial life. … However, I have never permitted these circumstances to react upon my daily life; for it is obvious that although I have “nothing to live for”, I certainly have just as much as any other of the insignificant bacteria called human beings. I have thus been content to observe the phenomena about me with something like objective interest, and to feel a certain tranquillity which comes from perfect acceptance of my place as an inconsequential atom. In ceasing to care about most things, I have likewise ceased to suffer in many ways. There is a real restfulness in the scientific conviction that nothing matters very much; that the only legitimate aim of humanity is to minimise acute suffering for the majority, and to derive whatever satisfaction is derivable from the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of truth (from Letter to Reinhardt Kleiner (14 September 1919), in Selected Letters I, 1911-1924 edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, pp. 86-87).
To what degree are we just endlessly retracing the brute materialism of thinkers like HP Lovecraft? In the historical period that follows the dissolutions of the scientific corrosions. Even here though we might question Lovecraft’s insistence that the ‘only legitimate aim of humanity is to minimise acute suffering from the majority’. If there is nothing inscribed in the fabric of the cosmos or in the biological programming of the individual or the species then what grounds the claim that that we are to reduce the sufferings of humanity? Moreover, what makes this the only feeble construction worth pursuing?
Given his own thoroughly scientistic materialism this ethical injunction can only be a suggestion proffered as a normative ideal on the basis of something in the deep history of the neurological and physiological make-up of his individual body and its interactions with an environment “enriched” by a history of socio-cultural pushing and pulling in elaborating on the basic human tendency to maximize survival through cooperative activity. If this is how Lovecraft responds to the problem of suffering then this is just how Lovecraft responds to the problem of suffering. We might say that such is his character. From the claustrophobic confines of mechanistic philosophy we can say no more.
This is what is at stake in the limit cases of psychopaths. By the quirks of his own design history the psychopath is exempt from the need to make calls in favour of limiting acute human suffering or from stepping in to do so. In fact the psychopath is often the one who operates in a space of freedom from the normative expectations of a species that feels such ideals intuitive truth more than they cognize them as rational.
Lovecraft himself was clear on this when he wrote that
. . . all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large . . . 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. Only the human scenes must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism (not catch-penny romanticism) 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.
The terrestrialism of our moralities have no validity or significance beyond our own parochial loves and hates, and these can be no more compelling to others than our preferences for horror stories over romantic comedy. This is a fundamentally depressive discovery that no amount of pretty language or speechifying can ever overcome. I do not mean to say that it is a depressing thought because the resilience of the healthy-minded is by definition incapable of integrating the disturbing realization that things are moral or immoral based on local organic valuations that essentially boil down to “this makes me feel good” or “this makes me feel bad”- a moral nihilism indistinguishable from emotivism at the practical level. If I say this is a depressive discovery it is because this is the world as it presents itself to every depressive who stares up at the things that surrounds them and realizes that this is it, and it is everything, and everything is nothing much at all.
The universe is only a furtive arrangement of elementary particles… The human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ Only egotism exists.
It is possible to keep staring. It is possible to stare at the wall and then at the window and then at the things beyond it- the sun and the trees, the buildings and people. These are all arrangements of elementary particles- or patterns or compressions of energy or mathematics, if that doesn’t sit well with our contemporary physics. From this position of formalist detachment it is a matter of supreme indifference whether what I am looking at is tree or a cup or a fly or a thing that thinks it is a person. At the psychopathic extremes one can begin to see the suffering of humanity as little more than a particular re-arrangement of the same elementary particles. A cancer is just a replication error in the information that organizes tissue; pain is a particular triggering of synaptic activity; a wound is a new way of arranging the cells of the body; a dying body is an extreme burst of biotic activity that rushes headlong into ecstatic vibration; a genocide is the redistribution of organic and inorganic materials on a scale that is humanly impressive but cosmically insignificant. Holding a knife and plunging it into another body could seem- at least in theory- to be no more than the dispassionate perturbation of physical system. The material organization the knife plunges into might let out a shriek before collapsing to the floor to enjoy a new choreography with the forces that impress upon it; the shriek would be the mere troubling of air packets, a disturbance of the particles connecting this knife-wielding structure to that one crumpled on the floor. You could watch indifferently as thick red fluid escapes from the incision your structure has made.
I can imagine this indifference to the local claims of parochial morality underpinning the strange case of the Black Dahlia murder: the body treated not as the substrate of the person but as a furtive arrangement of elementary particles that may as well be arranged this way as well as that. Cut open, cut apart, the body is laid down in the grass, a new figuration and geography of the body that is no longer restricted to that inherited through the morphological necessities of gene and developmental unfolding.
Of course none of this implies that we are in this psychopathic position. We are at present constrained to our terrestrial horizon, although our accelerating cybernetic condition may already be liberating us from those limits. It does imply that there are any number of responses to the acute suffering that Lovecraft believes it is our legitimate aim to diminish- although as we have seen may also simply cease to care about that suffering (even if we continue to display the necessary level of social concern to keep on-side with our communities). The call to attend to the need to reduce suffering already echoes the ethos of post-nihilist praxis found on this site. Over and again the authors of this blog have written that after the collapse of all transcedent signifiers in the post-intentionalist wake of the semantic apocalypse all that remains all that remains is bodies and their ecologies. We are called to care for them. We are called to a practice of compassion.
Accepting that any of this is the case under the present understanding that one either feels or does not feel the call, this leaves us with no guide for how to go about the reduction of suffering. What action aiming at the reduction of suffering is off the cards? If it were possible to painlessly sterilize the human race as it is in the tv show Utopia, or even to effect an instantaneous, simultaneous and totally painless species-extinction event would that satisfy the Lovecraftian impulse?
I have a horrible habit of writing very quickly, and not very carefully. The desire and more importantly the time for writing comes rarely. There is also the horrible tyranny of the big blue “publish” button at the bottom of the writing screen urging you to imagine you have finished when you’re still at the stages of a very rough draft. As I attempt to slow down and get more attentive, I hope to be able to do whatever justice an amateur philosopher can do to these subjects.
I should also acknowledge that all the above that in this post I have still remained very much within the ambit of the human that is effaced in the visions of psychopathy and extinction gestured to above. It is beyond my ability in this short post to enter into an analysis of what Reza Negarestani has dubbed the “cthuloid ethics” of inhumanism.
In future posts that I hope to spend more time writing than this piece of work I hope to explore these questions. From the truly materialist standpoint it would seem that an ethics of compassion or solidarity with fellow sufferers is the only ones capable of moving us to act. The ethical paths that opens up from this thorough-going atheism include negative utilitarianism and antinatalism on the one hand, and the possibility of a radical machinic acceleration on the other. This accleration might consist of a renewal of attempts to literally re-engineer the species, perhaps by means of direct interventions into the endocrine and neural infrastructure responsible for the emotions responsible for moral action. In either case we are dealing we are ultimately dealing with dreams of extinction of the merely human. And in either case we may be dealing with ethico-political ideals that appear monstrous to us. Perhaps it is this monstrosity that has led pessimist philosophers to almost universally advocate resignation, passivism, and asceticism.