the political theory of a pessimist

Thomas Ligotti has said in the past that he wishes people were more concerned with questions of justice. I’m not sure what justice means. It’s one of those abstract crumbling dreams of senile white men. Pessimists don’t generally speak about politics, and in sense that might be what makes the development of post-nihilist praxis especially bizarre. Beginning from the basic axioms of pessimism we move towards some kind of collective strategy for maximizing our capacities of coping with existence. Here is Ligotti on his own vision .

Recent movements such as transhumanism and abolitionism project a future in which suffering will be transcended with drugs and technology. There’s a guy named David Pearce who runs a Web site called The Hedonistic Imperative, and he very articulately insists that the only worthy goal in human life is that of feeling good all the time. Of course, this is the goal that everyone is concerned with in their lives, but Pearce argues that this could be more effectively and speedily attained by entirely artificial means. The fact that these people are obsessed with making a serious attempt to abolish human suffering, and to establish this aim as the central project of their lives, is nice to see. Thus far in human history, people have put their effort into curing diseases that make us dysfunctional and unproductive or that are obstacles to increasing our longevity. There hasn’t been much interest in confronting human suffering as such. Paradoxically, should the efforts of those who want to annihilate suffering succeed, it could be the end of us as a species. We would be returned to paradise. And reproduction would be irrelevant in a paradisal landscape where all dreams have been satisfied and all fears quashed. [Full]

Would a Ligotti appreciate leftism? It’s doubtful. The left probably constitutes something of a distraction and a denial of the horror of the world. We try to transform our present sufferings into the raw material of a better tomorrow. As he mockingly puts it in Conspiracy, the optimist believe that everyday in everyway things are getting better and better. But what if leftism was understood as this same project to abolish human suffering? Hyperstitional ideas of progress are precisely impossible fictions and for that reason they are the perfect example of humans beings choosing their own hallucinations. This has been the point of post-nihilist pragmatics since the beginning.

Here are his view on justice:

Besides euthanasia, I think it would be great if human beings were more concerned with justice than they have been. I remember seeing a documentary in which several people were asked if the Beatles were right in singing “All You Need Is Love.” When the sixties radical Abbie Hoffman was interviewed on this matter, he said, with apologies to the Beatles, that all you need is justice, not love. This reply profoundly resonated with me. Not long ago, I watched a lecture on the Internet in which Chris Hedges, author of The Death of the Liberal Class, proposed a spectrum in which justice was positioned at one end and freedom at the other. His claim was that liberals tended toward the justice end of the spectrum and conservatives at the freedom end. Anyone with a brain can see the truth of Hedges’ assertion. Of course, the implementation of justice far and wide would be impossible, while freedom reigns all over the place, especially the freedom to deny other people justice. If this statement sounds like it was made by a contestant for the Miss America crown, so be it.

Post-nihilistic praxis is predicated on two realities: First, that we have not outright killed ourselves. Second, that it is structurally impossible for us to step outside of our illusions. Everything is killing time. Everything is coping. And there are better and worse ways of passing the time. In Ligotti’s terms there are more just ways of passing the time together.

In the end if Ligotti’s pessimism forces him into the position of demanding the end of all suffering then his position is more expansive and more demanding than any historical leftism. The question is simply that of the route taken: extinction or transhumanism, or extinction through the transhuman passage into the posthuman future.

15 responses to “the political theory of a pessimist

  1. I read the article this was taken from. Very interesting. It occurs to me that pessimistic views should be given no more weight than optimistic views. Both are extremes brought on chemically––sometimes from just internal thoughts and sometimes from external circumstances. We can, because we are in charge of our beings, teach ourselves techniques to keep our state of minds in relative balance. We need to accept the oppositional duality of the world about us, understand that joy is only manifest in relation to the counterpart of sorrow, happiness in relation to suffering. A more perfect world would equalize all the extremes, political, socially and economically. Though that world is evolving, it is not yet available to most of us. That does not mean that it will not come.

    • A more perfect hell would still be hell, and there is a legitimate concern that a better future in which hell was less hellish is too remote to be motivating. The scale of a movement is beyond the scale of a human life.

      If we emphasize the chemical nature of emotion we must also emphasize the chemical nature of meaning. The dysphoric condition is one in which the world is stripped completely of any meaning at the level of what is felt and intuited. What is a more perfect world in this condition? It is inconceivable, perfectibility being some mythic image of things belonging to a world of grandiosity regarding the qualities of this little ape.

      The same problem is presented with joy. It is hard to think of joy as affirmation ever pushing one on to the desire for a more perfect world. The role of amor fati is to have us accept the world as it is, and in fact to love it.

      The emotions seem like bad guides for politics, except as sites of manipulation. We have them and they get played. This is part of our puppet-condition, and Ligotti makes this clear in a number of stories.

      At any rate, the question of “why should I care?” rears itself up again to block all movement. This time in the guise of the realization that immediatism-localism fails, while the futural realization of movement building has nothing to do with me. If you aren’t motivated by abstractions and hypotheticals like saving the environment for future generations, if you don’t care about generations to come but who do not exist, it’s pretty difficult to care.

      Likely the only answer is a purposeful self-deception: I care about this future because only through caring about this future can I effect the present- my present and the present of those still living. I care about the future as my future and have nothing to do with the absurd demand to bear responsibility for every life that is yet to come.

      A theoretical antinatalism that says it is wrong to invoke the future abstracted from our present. The future is a feedback loop and nothing more.

      The potentially keeps us in the realms of a depressive realism but corrects the failure of that condition which is it’s tendency to be over-confident in assertions about the future.

      At least we’d live in hell, instead of the hell in our minds.

      I think we should acknowledge that pessimism is temperamental. It’s a question of character. But many utopias exist and the capitulation of utopia as a piece of weaponry in the armoury has simply resulted in a social machinery that increases suffering. The ethics of pessimism, insofar as pessimists have such an ethics, is centred on the reduction of suffering and the dictate not to cause suffering. It is impossible to withdraw from the machinery of suffering, and if it were wouldn’t this just be a turning away? A copping-out. The pessimist is in no way allowed off the hook, unless he is a misanthrope like the guy in The Sunset Limited who hates the others because they remind him of himself.

      Of course what makes that film so interesting in the dialectic that goes on between the two characters as essentially the cognitive chatter in the pessimist’s own head. That the pessimist wins the argument means nothing. He merely wins the right to die. And this is the right to end his suffering. He merely reaps the very compassion he repudiates, even as he leaves his “keeper” in tatters.


      A final comment: the idea that pessimistic views and optimistic views are chemical and so deserve no more weight one than the other is precisely the problem I have been floating around here.

      For us who say such neurologically reductionist things- what is there to drive a person to value or to do *anything*. It is all chemicals. Everything loses its coherence and depression sets in. A structure is required and there are visions proffered: left and right; progressive and reactionary. One dreams of an integration but doubts the possibility.

      A more perfect world? What is that. A world without suffering. This means one of two things: a world in which the capacity to suffer has been overcome, or a world in which there are no humans. Either insane transhumanism or an equally insane engineered extinction. My own favourite insanity is a combination of these. But come on, let’s admit it these are all insane!

      A more perfect world belongs to people full of visions and dreams they cannot fully distinguish from reality. The condition of politics is psychosis.

      • You are indeed a full blown pessimist. Chemicals are what form the world and everything is produced from their interactions, including emotion and knowledge. There is no doubt that a more perfect world would still be imperfect, but to call any reality hell is an emotional outburst, not a product of rationality. Good luck with this. Not too many want to be that depressed.

        • On the contrary. Depression is snug and warm and familiar. It is a safe place down in the depths of interiority. People love depression.

          Calling the world hell isn’t really an emotional outburst. It’s a hyperbolic diagnosis. When Sartre said “hell is other people” he said precisely the same thing, only he limited to only one aspect of the world.

          In fact, the pessimitic position here, that the world itself is hell, is just the position that says “do not expect heaven”. This is a repudiation of dismal delusions and optimism biases. It is a deflationary gesture aimed at removing our stupidities.

          Even the radical left is beginning to talk about progress as a hyperstition- an “impossible but necessary fiction”. This is not the same as hope or linearity. It is not a dream but a vision. It’s the ownership of lunacy: YES WE’RE ALL MAD HERE. The hyperstitional utopian doesn’t believe in utopia, but she knows she needs it. This is a future that isn’t a glorious heaven but a recursive feedback circuit plugged directly into the present.

          To pretend the world is anything but hell has been the position of every failed optimism.

  2. Ligotti says: “The fact that these people are obsessed with making a serious attempt to abolish human suffering, and to establish this aim as the central project of their lives, is nice to see.”

    Strange that he’s copped out of late, entered an ascetic path toward a sort of refined Buddhism. Abolishing human suffering? Why not just end it, die quickly; wouldn’t that prove more effective? From my own bare Gnosticism, an atheistic economy of excess, a consuming drive to squander the very powers within and without, I seem to have revalued those old systems of negation into affirmation. Instead of exit or escape, of that homelessness of elsewhereness, I’ve begun rethinking sacred pain, of the implosion of desire into drives, of the release of joy out of eros and death.

    Whereas Huxley once gave us the perennial tradition of the negative vita, I’m slowly collecting the ambling tradition of a vita postiva, of excess and plenitude. Think of our cosmos: 71.4 % of our universe is made of a dark energy (x), 24 % of dark matter – all invisible to our senses and technologies, only registered in theoretical physics as math – the rest of the phenomenal universe of being covering a scant 4.6 % of the universe (baryon matter). Maybe all these dark flows of ghostly matter and energy seething through us and around us that has of yet to be identified or even edged into our scientific or philosophical consciousness harbor such strange life that our ancestors who dreamed, shamanized, Gnosticized could only hint at by way of metaphoric and hyperbolic unveilings. What if this sea of seething dark energy and matter harbor immanently the excess upon which we as phenomenal beings are both waste and expenditure? What if our future is in the darkness rather than the light of some exit or redemption from suffering, much rather a deepening of that painful existence which is our only life?

    • Without wishing to be crude, what if we were raped tomorrow. Would we lay down? Would we pretend to enjoy it?

      The question why not end it quickly. Well, Ive been thinking about that. How would we do it? How would you actually implement a quick death, a rapid extinction protocol? It would take as much effort and as much time as any leftist vision of liberation, it would take as much horror and as much bloodshed, and ultimately, sure, we’d all be drawn into silence. But come on- what platform do we have for this? I mean are we talking about a truly active nihilism? ~Fuck killing the king, it’s humanity itself that we need to assassinate! Well, by what right, and by what means. Unless it were simultaneous and instantaneous we breach our own antinatal ethics: we cause harm, we cause suffering, even as we end it.

      But this isn’t really what you mean is it? You’re talking about the alchemy that turns death into joy: that makes friends with death? That celebrates death, just as the antinatalist would.

      At the moment I’m unable to follow your blog- I always feel this anxiety of influence when I read your blog, so I leave pauses. One thing I will say is that there is always this tendency to shamanism and Gnosticism, but there is no reason why paradise engineering can’t go that root. I am still there with Schopenhauer aghast at the writhing Will eating itself, murdering itself as this or that, and perhaps this what dark energy and matter will become, and perhaps this is where the deepening of a painful existence leads us.

      But today, right now, in the cyclothimic rhythms of my thinking, I’m emphasizing the obvious answer to the question: “why not end it?”

      1. we are. our activity is killing us. we are the suicidal impulse of nature, of this i have no doubt.

      2. suicides are always ambivalent and most survivors report regretting their decision. we want death but we also want life. this introduces us to the simplest of answers: we won’t end it because we haven’t ended it. we’re desperately and pathetically organic.

      i suspect a posthuman being would find it much easier to opt-out and make an end of it (cf. A Possibility of an Island).

      I have to wonder whether the idea of humans, or just organic matter?, as “waste and expenditure” seems too far for me. It’s beautifully poetic, and I realize there is a Bataille reference but I’m not well read in that area, but its just too much. I lack that level of poetry. I wish I had more poetry to me, but I’m pretty arid, a desert that refuses rain. We’re just another material organization. We’re just a pattern. An “Idea of the will”. Viewed from the outside we’re as interesting as a wall that can’t watch its own paint dry.

      • In many ways your close to Ligotti who has for years lived in anhedonia, a listlessness without pleasure. The Suicide you speak of could move on two levels: 1) the literal enactment of self-destruction, flesh obliteration; or, 2) the self-destruction of all affect – the anhedonia of the psychopath who feels absolutely nothing, nothing at all. A sort of robotic automaton who feels neither pleasure or suffering, neither pain nor ecstasy.

        As Nick Land in his reading of Bataille will remind us all “energy must ultimately be spent pointlessly and unreservedly, the only questions being where, when, and in whose name this useless discharge will occur. Even more crucially, this discharge or terminal consumption… is the problem of economics.”

        The darkest extremes of Sethian Gnosticism brokered a cosmos in which evil must be consumed to its utter dregs, that one must enact every degradation and corruption to the point of sheer ecstatic indifference. A sort of Rimbaudian rational distortion of the senses that would purify the mind of its suffering, releasing it to the wonders of exuberance beyond pain or oblivion. One often wonders how those old Cathars and Bogomils were able to so joyfully enter the flames of those Inquisitorial judgements with such absolute equanimity, feeling nothing but the joyousness of their self-immolation as a community. Was this pure madness? Or had they discovered a physical exercise of the spirit that led to an accommodation of pain and suffering turned joyous? No one was left to tell us for sure except the very Inquisitors, who were puzzled by such strange manifestations of human integrity.

        • Just to jump in on the psychopathic point: I have been discussing precisely this with Felix. The psychopath lives in the real. Or rather a vision of the psychopath does. The real psychopath is usually less an affectless monster as he is pointed out than a dysregulative mess. But the point it taken, the selectivity of the spectrum of psychopathy-autism is understood. And perhaps this is the goal, over and above the miserable realm of compassion.

          To puncture the Rimbaudian stuff with the observation of a psychiatric nurse: you’re talking about self-harm. There are those self-harmers who cut to feel pain and those who cut to feel pleasure and those who cut to feel anything at all…to reestablish contact with the real.

          The Cathars and the Bogomils, didn’t they also have strange ideas of sin. The idea of grace. Of a sinless state. I suspect this has something to do with it. Oh yes, I suspect it’s all madness. My basic notion now about our species is we’re all lunatics; the madmen are just the ones who are in pain, the rest enjoy it.

          But really the puzzle is our bipolarity. How do we entertain these ideas whilst at the same time asking for intervention in refugee crises.

          Such bad and evil thinkers, the nostalgic beauty of terrorism, don’t we secretly yearn for the olden days when we might blow everything up with a nuclear weapon or two?

          I’ve just finished Inventing The Future by Williams and Srnicek, and one of these dark thoughts concerns their lack of concern over climate change, their desire to shift it aside and think it as something little and for the future. Get more tech and more machines and onward ever onward. Because our lives will be improved. Our lives will get better. The joy of a machinic future. The joy of a machinic future in which we’re butchered by climate we’re driving onward to collapse.

          A sick animal: our utopia already is a version of self-immolation.

  3. It’s easy to roll along on this river of pain and glorify and revel. It’s easy because speculation doesn’t come with nerve endings. Philosophy likes to think it doesn’t at least. The horror, the horror…as it masturbates into the small hours.

    Does it come down to a question: what do you do when you’re confronted with a suffering body? This is a serious question. It is this simplicity that orients. As Schopenhauer insists, abstract reason must always be referred back to intuitive cognition. So the suffering body. Do we kill it? Do we say “oh you’ve had too much” or do we try to effect some recovery and some health. I’d be lying if I said I did anything but the latter. It’s my job. In the end the economy of our blackest thoughts keep us regulated. I can try to save the suicide (what right do I have?) because I can imagine leaning in and saying “yes, you’re fucked…do it, get your exit”.

    I’ll be honest with you for once: I have no idea what I think. I’m a blundering little body and I’m no intellectual. I’m slow and stupid and half the time I wish I’d never picked up a book. The X-Box seems like a lovely place to live. In fact I can tell you how I feel. It’s silly really.

    Watching Doctor Who with my partner’s son I see Doctor Who’s latest and perhaps darkest incarnation talking about humans as “mayflies”, and he insists to a fellow near-enough immortal that “the mayflies have value because they keep us tethered to vanishing things”. This other immortal thinks she doesn’t care about human lives any more. How short they are, how filled with sound and fury, what shadows passing over their own corpses. And he says that he thought that way for a time. This other immortal, she asks him what happened. And he says this perfect line:

    “Oh you think you stop caring, then you fall off the wagon”.

    This caring is an addiction. It is a compulsion. How can I walk away from the body in pain? And if the world is in pain should I put it out of its misery? But doesn’t it have some say in the matter? Or rather don’t all those organisms I would take the right to legislate their exit for have the right? If not the right then at least the ability to raise my perverted salvationism as a wrong. The most immediate wrong.

    I am no annihilationist, anyway. Why would I want to punish humanity? I do not separate myself from it like the misanthropist does. Well, if I am a misanthrope it is because I hate life, not humanity. But hating life and wishing to be rid of it isn’t quite the same as closing the doors and burning everything down. Ach, come on now; wouldn’t pessimist who got bleaker still tell you all you needed to know: “you believe in agonies awaiting you in the fiery torment of the future? I believe that is where we already find ourselves and have no need for theological deferrals”.

    The bipolarity, the torsion, the twisting and the dance: an optimism without hope, and a hopelessness without despair. Isn’t it better to reject the rules that say we must judge whether life is good or bad.

    Cognition of life remains a biological process. It remains, for now, the beating pulse of matter thinking about privileged shape of matter: the organic. Well, as the efilists says… if we’re serious about consciousness we’d better ensure it can never come back: burn every organic being off the earth…………… and what about the cosmos? It’s a big place. Impossible. The pessimist wants too much, doesn’t she?

    And here comes your third option. Your dreadful ascetics. Your Stoics come with their unbending rationalism. Optimists and pessimists passing judgements on life? Pffffffft…. Life is nothing. It’s raw material. Do you worry so much about clay when you come to study the sculpture? You want to weep for the pain you endure? Well what the fuck did you expect you slave? Some kind of endless pleasure? Go and join Epicurus in his garden and see how far it gets you. And come to that the Stoics would leave the option: orgies of suicide, a veritable fashion. You want a self-immolation? Okay, great. But it better be because life has run out of use and not just because you’re disappointed that the cosmos didn’t hold you in its tender embrace like a sentimental lover from some 1950s Hollywood saccharine.

    Doesn’t Ligotti actually straight up admit that the pessimist is just a disappointed optimist? For all its faults the virtue of Stoicism is that it neither hopes nor mopes.

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