Exit/Sublime

A black hole.

Not even light can escape.

No sooner has light of a sort escaped, though (an image of the event horizon) then already it’s actual incomprehensibility is subsumed under the authority of  philosophy. Thomas Nail (see previous post: Black hole sun: On the materialist sublime) thinks a black hole thus:

The black hole is an excellent example of the materialist sublime. Nature and matter are not passive or deterministic. They are indeterminate material processes. They perform precisely the sublime that Kant restricts to humans alone.

It’s an interesting speculation but one immediately inserted into a particular iteration of philosophical materialism. Beyond mere speculation and an ordinary sense of wonder, Nail declares the black hole an example of the Kantian sublime, but one radicalised to suit his particular version of  materialism. In doing this he confirms a ubiquitous philosophical law:

All that exists is philosophisable; all that is philosophisable exists.

And so the black hole gets easily inserted into a discourse and subsequently into the mundane mechanisms of academic production and reproduction – promotional blogs, academic seminars, lectures, papers, commentaries, and publications.

Nail again:

Humans have the experience of sublimity only because nature is already performatively and materially sublime, the indeterminate condition of space-time itself (quantum gravity)

If this indeterminate condition should rightly force us back on the experience of subliminal awe –  an experience impacting the person at bodily/affective levels of experience – such an outcome has already been overruled by Nail’s text; we are already well on the way to exiting the sublime and entering into the purely conceptual, leaving behind the unruly and often fearful border-land between visceral intuition and proto-thought, for a philosophically domesticated explication. Nail’s God-like insertion of the indeterminate black hole into his very determinate brand of philosophical materialism allows us to escape contemplating the most obvious implication of the existence of such entities — as a species we humans are living in a universe of gargantuan forces unspeakably indifferent to our survival. At the centre of our galaxy, to use Land’s phrase, is a Fanged Noumena.

One could, of course, object that what Nail is doing is mere speculation, a normal human reaction to an astounding event. But that would be a naive reduction of Nail’s (or any philosopher’s ) practice to it’s common ground in human curiosity and wonder. The world is not that simple. The World is, rather, an outcome predicated on what happens philosophy when it’s speculations enter into the stream of reification and solidify as the unquestioned norms conditioning patterns of social relation and structures of power – that set of institutional Authorities that preside over the human just as the World. If academia is philosophy de-fanged and domesticated, the World is Philosophy with the fangs reinserted to do the work of keeping us in line. The World, in its appetite for victims, is a black hole into which the powerless silently disappear.

Nail’s work might be a long way from direct complicity in oppression and harassment. If, however, the coming climate apocalypses augers the end of “business as usual” then what Althusser called the state apparatus (inclusive of academia) will have to be involved in the reordering of economic and social relations and the transformation and intensification of the struggle for radical democracy, localism, sustainable work etc etc. 

 One could look back to the sixties to see how a radicalisation of academics might be possible. At that point the academy became, in some instances at least, a bastion of self questioning of its own norms, practices, institutions and structures of power. It became a site of struggle, a laboratory putting new forms of power relations to the test, orientated around the right relation between teacher and pupil and the role of the intellectual to the project of social and political emancipation.

In a nutshell, the professors could learn from the children and school strike for the climate. Imagine that.

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Free philosophical speculation is shot through by an indeterminacy predicated on the interpenetration of innumerable fields of enquiry too complex and too conflicted to register as an integrated system of postulates. Thinking is, rather, an ecological field where:

...the habits, practices and contexts of speech-acts amplify or dis-intensify schema, attentional, dispositions,sentiments,and affects – influencing and generating subjectivities and cognitive interests in a way that have little regard for the normative procedures of logic, or any given style of fact-weighing.

 

One could call this ecological field that wild outside from which we act and think and out of which we fabricate the Worldly truths under which we then labour, having collectively bound ourselves in chains of our own making- the hard won philosophical truths which:

… always remains predicated on an all too human desire to cognitively overcome ecological complexity (and with that ontological incompleteness) through some sort of triumphant semantic closure: a perspective that believes itself to be outside looking in on the mangled ecology and politics of discourse as such…

In other words, we don’t appear in a World as fully endowed subjects, armed with language deployed as particular systems of postulates, to engage an already constituted social field of conflicting collective and individual interests. We are never fully interpellated into a regime of signs and even where we seem to be subsumed, we undergo transformations at different levels of experience which enable or constrain the sorts of practices we engage in as subjects. The sum total of all of this activity, much of it below conscious awareness or control and therefore below the register of rationally ordered explication, just is the social field.

It is only at a particular level of semantic sophistication – at the level of philosophical abstraction – that ordinary thinking is domesticated, as it were, abandoning it’s unkempt and unmanageable wildness to become a system of postulates that tries to circumscribe the field of visceral intuitions out of which it emerges. It tries to detach itself from the field to conceive itself as able to adjudicate on the essential nature of the field, utilising a vocabulary of absolute terms. In doing so it auto-posits itself as something other than the sum total of its constituent parts, each of which, as an element of the field, will have been disclosed by science as indeterminate and foreclosed, therefore, to conceptual capture. By such a strange doubling, philosophy elevates itself by it’s own bootstraps and becomes the transcendent arbitrator of what constitutes the real, now equated with it’s own foundational concepts.

It was Kant, of course, who cottoned on to the problem of the self constitution of the subject, which just seemed to pop out of its semantic ground fully fledged and already engaged with the appearances in an effort at “triumphant semantic closure”. The transcendental subject was premised on the magisterial division of the world into phenomenon and noumenon and the  categories of time and space, which allowed for the very possibility of knowledge grounded in shared experience. That very time and space which will, perhaps, be negated by the cataclysmic appearance of a black hole, along with the possibility of any subject at all.

…….

A black hole.

Not even light can escape.

And yet we cannot help but speculate, divested of agreed terminology and forced to stretch the capacities of language to encompass the limit of that event horizon over which time and space, being and becoming, inexorably slide into extinction. If, at the less psychologically fraught level, you doubt the challenge which the actuality of a black hole poses for existing ways of thinking the Real, convince yourself by trying to engage with this entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

This long philosophical/scientific meditation on the nature of the black hole grapples with the way received concepts fail to account for this strange instance of the real — at once an entity within the space/time continuum ( scientists can fix its position relative to other entities ) but one which simultaneously negates those same categories. A black hole is, literally, an existing impossibility. The Stanford essay pushes scientific and philosophical language to the limit in an effort to come to terms with an actually existing entity that does not fit into the philosophical grammology of our World as constituted by philosophers – being, substance, becoming, essence, existence, void, first cause etc. etc, – and yet is undeniably present to our scientific instruments and finally to our gaze. It seems understandable that we would flee into the safety of semantic closure, if only to save our much vaunted capacity for thought from this indifferent monster who, like Goya’s voracious Saturn, devours his children.

Still, there might be a way of using such quasi scientific/philosophical texts that refuses to deny incontestable fact and resists the temptation for semantic closure. We could try to divest the material of  any transcendent potential to deliver us from  a dark fate. We could try to craft a philo-fictional alternative that does not bow it’s head. It’s a tall order, of course. God might not throw dice but he does deal in mass extermination. If, as science now contends, the universe is awash with habitable planets and sentient life, chances are that much of it is routinely swallowed up by black holes. God has, in other words, a shadow, in the form of a demi-god inflicting a cruel and unbending scientific law on his subjects: might over right. Can we live with that thought and still strive for justice against the World and it’s Authorities? Can we persevere as the “Lived” that Humanity which can approach the event horizon of personal or species extinction as an existential challenge: one dares to live without the certainty afforded by semantic closure, even unto extinction.

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