Xenogothic has written a reply to my last post that demands a response. The need to reply comes from the fact that it hits on philosophical touchstones that I had included in the first draft of Deeply Adaptive Patchworking but that I’d culled from a desire to keep a focus on the practical component. The point of that post had been simply to reorient conversations on patchwork from fantasy to imagination (a Kantian distinction). Having done that I feel a little freer to return to the material I’d culled, Eugene Thacker’s discussions of the world-in-itself and extinction.
When I’d written the section on global weirding I had Eugene Thacker’s world-in-itself very much on my mind. Thacker will talk about the world-in-itself as the world as it resists us in its stubborn and surprising refusals to be domesticated by reason. These escapes are total, ruining the vanities of theoretical and practical reasoning, as well as aesthetic judgement, often leaving us petrified in dreadful clutches of a terrible sublime.
The world-in-itself is a paradoxical concept; the moment we think it and attempt to act on it, it ceases to be the world-in-itself and becomes the world-for-us. A significant part of this paradoxical world-in-itself is grounded by scientific inquiry – both the production of scientific knowledge of the world and the technical means of acting on and intervening in the world.
The world-for-us corresponds to the world in our various comportments, to the world as it correlates to human cognitive and instrumental projects. The world-for-us is the world of the human interior, the one that our perception and philosophies have constructed. To it belongs all of human endeavour such that any scientific disclosure of that world is a necessary and accidental elusion of it. It is impossible to represent the world-in-itself because to do so draws it into a system of reference that always closes the circle on that human interior, returning us continually to ourselves.
Thus the paradox that our knowledge of the world-in-itself comes from methodologies incapable to making genuine contact with it. This can be taken as a simple statement of epistemic humility, a recognition that the map is not the territory. In a stronger variant it risks the humiliation of modernity. The world-for-us is the world-simulation that we live inside and that is the subject of all our scientific discourse. Notice that this doesn’t imply that the world-in-itself is fundamentally inaccessible, only that our best mode of access operates inferentially.
Consider the deep mysteries of quantum mechanics and the logical entailment of Darwinian inflected neurobiology. These are probably our most advanced scientific projects and the world they describe is one that doesn’t resemble anything even vaguely like our naive ontologies. Worse, they suggest that the classical ontology of objects is systematically erroneous because the mind-independent environment has selected for them. Perception is adaptive rather than veridical. We know these things about the world-for-us through the scientific successes that allows us to tentatively describe the world-in-itself. Yet in doing so we’re returned to the fact that even these feats are components of our world-simulation, the world-for-us, and that behind the mathematics the world-in-itself continues to recede.
Thacker will explain that
Even though there is something out there that is not the world-for-us, and even though we can name it the world-in-itself, this latter constitutes a horizon for thought, always receding just beyond the bounds of intelligibility.
The world-in-itself recedes beyond the bounds of intelligibility. The deeper we go the more incomprehensible the world shows itself to be.
Thacker’s concerns link up to my own directly in the next sentence. There he will write that
Tragically, we are most reminded of the world-in-itself when the world-in-itself is manifest in the form of natural disasters. The discussions on the long-term impact of climate change also evoke this reminder of the world-in-itself, as the specter of extinction furtively looms over such discussions.
This is the dynamic of global weirding. It is the slow and sudden upsurge that reveals the real as that which lay always on the other shore of reality.
From this he will go on to discuss another distinction, the-world-without-us. This is the world as imagined in all our post-extinction fantasies. It’s the world of an apparently morbid imagination that conjures scenes of humanity’s utter desolation. An inhuman thought that thinks species-being as species-disappearance; an absolute proletarianisation that tempts us to believe with utter despondency that impersonal destiny lies in ruin. It’s a temptation that ends in the thirst for annihilation and that crests on the heights of despair.
Yet the world-without-us incorporates us as our own witness, a paradoxical survivor able to survey its own world-simulation running in its absence. For Thacker it’s this world-without-us that intrigues. It’s the world-without-us that harkens from world to planet. The world-in-itself is earth and it’s that manifestation that occludes the planet in its very manifesting. Thacker will tell us that planet presents us with an antinomy because it too is another conceptual demarcation, another categorisation of discursive thought. To think the planet is to have the planetary slip beyond our thinking.
In fact these paradoxes resemble the structure of the ko’an. The ko’an is a device used in Rinzai Zen that is a problem that lacks a solution that is given to the student. The novice must come before the master in ritual context to present his solution to the insoluble. The point is to demonstrate the deep inadequacy of conceptual thinking in an embodied experiential way. In Thacker’s language, it’s to show how the world fails to solve the planet. What’s striking in the ko’an is that it uses logic to show the inadequacies of logic and deploys language to gesture allusively beyond language. In this sense then, global weirding is the earth that refuses containment in either world or planet.
At this point where are we but in mysticism? Haven’t we been there for some time? The paradoxes that mount around us. The deepening mystery of the world that Thacker reads as tragic. There is undoubtedly tragedy in natural disasters and climatic breakdown but that derives from the suffering they cause and the threat of extinctions, human and nonhuman, and our apparent powerlessness in the face of them. The other side of the equation, the humiliation of thought, has another aspect, one less bathed in pathos. It’s this turn towards mysticism understood as an attentive immersion in the mystery of experience. To put it another way, it’s to awaken our participation in the mystery of the world.
That could sound dismissive. It could come over that I’m minimising the realities of climatic breakdown and its various horrors. Yet I’m very alive to those grim scenarios and my thinking about patchwork is entirely oriented by them. The deeply adaptive ecotechnic community is one seeking to mitigate and prevent whatever harm it can. Looming always in the darkness, behind every particular jolt or laceration we could endure, is death, and, exceeding that, the “existential risk” of human extinction.
This will lead Thacker to draw his tripartite division of world/earth/planet into that thought of extinction. In lurid and poetic prose he will tell us that
Beyond these specters there is the impossible thought of extinction, with not even a single human being to think the absence of all human beings, with no thought to think the negation of all thought.
The thought of extinction is impossible because in extinction there is no one left to think it. The disappearance of humanity is the end of thought and thus the end of thought of extinction. In relative extinction of one mammalian species there is the absolute extinction of thought itself. Thacker will present a history of the thought of extinction that situates it firmly as a scientific concept deployed in scientific contexts. The thought of extinction is very much a thought, a cognitive designation, and it’s one that possess a peculiar relation to ontology. Thacker elaborates his history in order to draw us into the knotted relationships between the thought of death and the thought of extinction, the thought of the life-and-death of the individual and the thought of the life-and-death of the species, ‘the dichotomy of existence and non-existence’.
We will follow Thacker through a series of questions that terminate in what is the ramifying question. He will ask
Who is the witness of extinction? In the case of the extinction of all human beings, who is it that gives testament to this extinction, to the very thought of extinction? In this sense extinction can never be adequately thought, since its very possibility presupposes the absolute negation of all thought.
So we return to the impossibility of the thought of extinction and to the thought of extinction as the impossibility of thought. This antinomy of extinction is another insoluble problem for thought in thought. And doesn’t this reveal the antinomy as ko’an, a thought that points beyond thought, towards its own intimate outside?
Thacker will point towards another outside, the ‘world outside’ that Xenogothic highlights when he draws on Thacker in his reply. This is another kind of intimate outside, an unredeemable hollow. Thacker will argue that
if absolute extinction implies that there can be no thought of extinction, then this thought in itself leaves but one avenue open: that extinction can only be thought, that it can only be said to exist, as a speculative annihilation.
There is a subtle but important ambiguity here. If extinction is a speculative annihilation this is because it can only be said to exist if it can be thought. This seems unproblematic on first blush. How could something be said to exist if it couldn’t be thought? On a second reading we can see that this is exactly where the problem lies.
Is Thacker saying that something can be said to exist only if it can be thought or is he saying that is can only exist if it can be thought? This is an epistemological problem that takes us to the heart of the context his Horror of Philosophy was written in: speculative realism. Is Thacker’s suggestion that extinction only takes place if there is a witness to designate it or is he saying that extinction only “takes place” if there is this witness. Extinction as an event belongs to the silence of the planet and its thought can only be part of the furniture of the world. Thus we’re enmeshed in an ever spiralling paradox.
Nonetheless it seems like Thacker is intimating that the category of extinction has priority over the event. The event of extinction that takes place is not “extinction” but to consider it a speculative annihilation seems to risk the negation of the real because of the collapse of reality. Extinction as concept and as articulation are dissociable from the actual disappearance of the species. Has Thacker gotten so caught up in the paradoxes of discursive thinking that he’s lost sight of the world? The possibility of extinction is, after all, the possibility of the disappearance of worlding. Speculative though this may be, it would comprise a very real annihilation.
Thacker will conclude that
Extinction is a void – or, perhaps, a biological void, a form of life that is neither biological life (the death of the organism) nor the existence of a set (the persistence of a species). In extinction, the set is related to life by the way in which the death of life leads to emptiness or the empty set. Extinction is the null set of biology… Extinction is the non-being of life that is not death.
This void is a ‘non-being that is not nothing’. Thacker will draw on Levinas to characterise non-being as provoking ‘the quite gothic fear of a something whose thingness is under question’. This gothic non-being takes Thacker into a discussion that takes him into the heart of horror and towards into the heart of his own cosmic pessimism.
Yet elsewhere, outside the horror of philosophy, Thacker will encounter that Zen Buddhism that brought forth the ko’an as a methodology for awakening to enlightenment. Thacker will write a short essay for the Japan Times on the work of Kyoto School founder Keiji Nishitani. Here we meet Thacker’s haunting void head-on. He will write of Nishitani that
At the center of his philosophy lies the problem of nihilism, what he called “the abyss of nihility” — the absence of any meaningful relationship between the human being and the nonhuman world into which it is cast. But this was not just a subjective dilemma for Nishitani. Attentive to the rapid changes in mid-20th-century Japan and across the globe, Nishitani sought to comprehend “the tendency to lose the human” in a world at once post-industrial and postmodern. The questions he posed are still relevant, specifically to our recent concerns about the climate and planet. Rather than ignore this abyss, Nishitani sought to go deeper into it. As he once put it, “the fundamental problem of my life has always been, put simply, the overcoming of nihilism through nihilism.”
The overcoming of nihilism through nihilism could express the founding spirit of synthetic zero, beginning as it did as a site for the collective search for what we then called a post-nihilist praxis. It may be small wonder that I would turn from that towards Buddhism.
Thacker writes that Nishitani’s philosophy orbits around an abyss. That abyss is the void at the heart of cosmic pessimism – the failure of the ‘meaningful relationship between the human being and the nonhuman world’. Thacker will use Nishitani as a pivot to introduce what he calls ‘the concept of sunyata’. Thacker will explain that sunyata is the sanskrit term for emptiness that is often translated as nothingness. He will further explain that
this is not nihilism as typically understood, this nothingness is no void that must be filled: sunyata is not some thing in itself nor some empty container in which things exist and persist. It is, paradoxically, “the point at which everything around us becomes manifest in its own suchness.”
And here we see the error that explains Thacker’s pessimism. In fairness it’s an error that rests on a fundamental misperception that most of us make at one point or another. It’s the same misperception that lead the first wave of Westerners to encounter Buddhism to consider it a nihilistic and death worshipping cult of nothingness. Hegel would write of the Buddhists that
They say that mere Nothingness is the basis of all things; that all things are brought out of this Nothing and out of the mingling of the elements, and must tend back there again; that all phenomena, both living and non-living, are only different from one another in form and in superficial properties: upon examination/contemplation of phenomena or basic elements, however, nothing besides remains.
Thacker at least can’t be judged as mistaking emptiness as ‘mere Nothingness’ or as an absolute negation. Nor does he make the mistakes of Buddhist Romanticism or make a repackaging of German Idealism in exotic garb (cf. Edward Conze). Nonetheless Thacker does make a serious error here and it’s telling for development of pessimism. I don’t say for his pessimism because ther error extends to all those who gaze into the abyss as though it were the case that over here is the gazer and over there is the abyss.
Thacker’s error is there in his Nishitani article when he talks about ‘the concept of sunyata’. If there is one thing that all Buddhist traditions and lineages share across vast geographical and temporal distances it’s that emptiness is not a concept. If emptiness were a concept then Buddhism would only be philosophy. The fact is that Buddhism is not a philosophy, although it contains aspects very like it (View) and, in some of its guises, makes use of it, instrumentalising it for soteriological purposes. In Buddhism we don’t seek to speculate for speculation’s sake but in order to live the view.
I risk getting ahead of myself so I’ll come back to focus on sunyata. Emptiness is experienced directly in sitting meditation as the cessation of discursive thought and the abundant presence of awareness. Emptiness as an experience that the word “emptiness” points to are distinct, the experience being irreducible to the pragmatic concept that tries (and fails) to pick it out. Emptiness is not nothingness of any kind and is experienced as and within its own self-expression as form. Roughly, form corresponds to stability, solidity, permanence, to an ontology of things that are discrete and discontinuous with one another. Form is the world of things (including the world of persons). Emptiness is insubstantiality, impermanence, indistinctness. Where form is certain and clear, emptiness is all shimmering ambiguity. In the kind of Buddhism I’m learning, trying to learn, hoping to learn, there is the third term “nonduality”. The recognition of nonduality is the recognition that our recognition of the world of form is a misrecognition. Nonduality is the continuous oscillation or wavering that takes place between form and emptiness. In this View the nondual experience is the open awareness of the dance of forms that takes place within and as emptiness. In the Zen Buddhism of Dogen we will likewise find that the world of form is the world of emptiness in its creative self-expression.
In the last few years David Chapman has been rearticulating this distinction as pattern and nebulosity. I think this is helpful given the use of pattern in Western philosophy. It’s also helpful because nebulosity casts emptiness at a far remove from any idea of emptiness. If there is another language we could cast it in that would be more familiar to readers of patchwork theory it might be DeleuzoGuattarian. This is an unthought-out suggestion that is being articulated more as a rough guide than as a serious scholarly translation. That said, we can risk suggesting that form is something like reality and emptiness is something like desiring-production. The goal of living the view is akin to an aesthetic goal that seeks to attain the purposive purposiveness. To live the view is to awaken to the always already being within the nondual state.
This endless oscillation is neither gloopey flux nor the abyss or void of nonbeing. The very categories of being and nonbeing, existence and nonexistence, seem to fail to apply to the nondual nature of experience and reality. The ‘quite gothic fear’ of the abyss is a deeply mistaken perception that takes patterns-in-nebulosity (or nebulosity-as-patterning) as if they were patterns-without-nebulosity; it is the very basic neurosis that constitutes the dual state that function to produce the separation between self and world to begin with. That the planet slips behind the world is to miss the fact that the planet continuously comes forth as the world. The world is the self-expressive experience of the planet. Thus the horror of the outside is the horror of duality when it realises that there is nothing but impermanence and nonseparation.
At the core of the Buddhist view is the diagnosis of this neurotic pattern of duality throughout human experience. This is as true for ontology as it is for morality (good and evil) or hedonic tonality (pleasure and pain). In the ontological realm duality manifests itself in an extreme version of the dichotomy between Eternalism and Nihilism. Briefly, eternalism refers to all doctrines that assert some kind of Oneness or Order to the order of things, and that treats things and people as permanent and distinct. When people come to realise the error of eternalism they tend to jump to Nihilism with its symmetrically opposite set of beliefs. This is where the thought of being and nonbeing, existence and nonexistence, even of nonbeing that is not a negation, comes from. It is this pattern of duality that Buddhism departs from.
Thacker’s gothic fear is the common human fear that arises when the belief in permanence is threatened. It’s the fear that comes from our belief in our own ontological security is taken away from us and we’re left exposed and raw and overwhelmed. This experience can happen in sitting meditation as much as it can in the face of climatic breakdown. It’s the fear of a self that doesn’t exist (in the way it thinks of existence) being swallowed up by a void that doesn’t exist (in the way it thinks of existence). It’s the fear of the breakdown of the relationship between human beings and the nonhuman world that culminates in the nihilism that despairs over its ability to locate meaning in the face of extinction. It’s nothing less than the fear of the outside that is sunyata.
This is what it means to ask Thacker’s ramifying question: ‘Who is the witness of extinction?’ The question asks about subjectivity. It asks about the persistence of subjectivity beyond its own existential and speculative limits. It hints towards posthuman dreams of immortality. The witness remembers and in being remembered we will have been witnessed and allowed the dignity of the concept of extinction. It’s the paradox at the heart of the nondual state: if there is no self then who is it that is enlightened?
Ultimately, it’s a fear that grips us all and that can only be proliferating in the face of the our global weirding. It’s that fear that draws us towards the need for anticipatory and open adaptive responses. Meditation is great and all, but it can’t stop the event of extinction in the real any more than philosophy can.
And so we return to the ko’an of extinction and the realities of climatic breakdown, endless and terrible meditations on interpenetration and impermanence that can, perhaps, be taken as the impetus for the active cultivation of new subjectivities and new practices of living, and grieving, in these, our beautiful charnel grounds.
Does the thought of extinction end in the morass of pessimism and speculative annihilation? Or does it produce the seeds of rebellion and experimentation? Do we wilt in resignation, or act with the nobility of compassion even as we relinquish that which must be let go?