Bleaker than Bleak (by Paul J. Ennis)
Bleak theory accepts that it itself is almost entirely wrong. However, precisely on the basis that it accepts humans are almost always wrong about how it goes with the world and so what are the chances of this theory being right? In this paradoxical, confused sense it is a theory of human fallibility. Or the inability of humans to see themselves for what they are, even when, as per contemporary neuroscience, we kind of know (have you not yet heard the “good” news that you are not what you think you are?). We kind of know because we are beginning to see ourselves from the third-person perspective. Subjectivity is devolving into objectivity and objectivity entails seeing things clearly, even if not transparently. That opacity, always there in the subject-object distinction, is collapsing and the consequences are bleak. The second reality-appearance “appeared” as a crack we cracked. It has been going on ever since. Consider the insanity of the entire post-Kantian tradition and the in-itself – is it not just an expression of what it feels like when you recognise what was once a “transparent cage” (Sartre) of looking directly at the world is a hallucination, a real one, all the same.
We cannot outpace this very blindspot that renders us a self or a subject. We are deluded about our beliefs or intentions (a given, so to speak), but more significantly we are deluded that somehow we can ‘recursively’ leap ‘over our own shoulders’ and see not just the trick, as Bakker might put it, but something substantial. Rather than just a model or a process withholding information from “you” yourself. Your own brain lies to you. It hides noise (‘data-reduction’) so that you do not collapse into a schizophrenia of buzzing information. This much Bergson, Deleuze, and Meillassoux have suggested is a most horrifying possibility. If all the data of the world flowed in you would be at one with matter, but what would you hear? Do you even want to countenance what that might involve? Hell is all around you. Your brain is just trying its best to stop you being lit on fire.
Everything is pretty patterns (Ladyman and Ross) and you are too. The problem with patterns is that sometimes they clash. If the brain has been hacked together it’s bound to be buggy as hell. Look at your computer. One subpersonal process goes askew and you need it fixed. The technician tries a few things, maybe it works, or maybe it does not. Maybe, as in severe cases of schizophrenia or depression, you just have a crappy system. I’ve said before that consciousness is the holocaust of happiness, meant sincerely, not lightly, and by this I mean that if the conditions or constraints that created a self never came together, in just the way it has for us, there would never have been any conscious suffering. Consciousness is the final correlate of all human suffering. You can blame almost anything else, but had “we” (is it really “us”) never believed we should be stable, integrated selves none of the bugs that followed would have appeared. Our world would have been a beautiful, empty, unthinking collection of material patterns: perhaps even a heaven of unthinking noise?
Chaos, as I am sure you have heard, is a ladder, but so too is evolution. Lifted up from the dregs of biology into cultural evolution we came to see what nothing else could see. Some foolishly believed this was a gift. Civilisation was realised. When in reality each one was built on war. Philosophers know how to dance around this problem: we can think our way, collectively, toward a more rational, constrained future. Except collective intelligence most often works best when deployed toward destructive ends: where do you find the most creative minds? The war-room. ‘War, everywhere I look…’ (Tormentor). To make it explicit, so to speak, if you want new masters, as Lacan said, you will find them. Look into the dead eyes of those who desire freedom and there rests fear. Fear that they will build a palace of reason only for the stability so hard fought for to collapse under the weight of the chronic irrationalism of the baser human aspect, untameable, unpredictable, and unknowable. History books are the evidence you stack up to adduce this, but at least today we have learnt enough to include the accelerated process of decline into our calculations. We no longer fight our enemies. We kiss them on the mouth and ask if we can join them in the decadent decline in advance.
I know I should not speak like this. What a waste to spend your time reasoning about the impossibility of one day sticking the hook in and indexing some little part of reality that, Tetris-like, delivers temporary respite. Only, of course, here comes more bricks. As I feel, always in my very bones, what I know is coming, the far-off end (it is never close enough), bleak theory morphs into even and ever bleaker theory, sometimes just bleak, once bleaker than black, but now bleaker than bleak. Rust Cohle, in True Detective, at one points let’s his interrogators know: ‘I know who I am. And after all these years, there’s a victory in that.’ It is the most paradoxical of victories. The “pyrrhic” victory of traditional philosophy, found in thinkers as diverse as Husserl and Meillassoux, where one gains a foothold on the world after a long struggle. The question bleak theory asks, adrift the perennial tradition, is whether knowing who we are will result in precisely the inverse of the oldest goal of philosophical self-knowledge: we cannot understand ourselves except as that entity which cannot truly know itself. Know thyself? Perhaps all along it has been the wrong question.
The tradition of philosophy always hinges on a subtle revision of position and orientation. This is the generative process whereby, for instance, the ambiguity of postmodern philosophy culminates in a counter-revolution of rational normativity. This is our contemporary example, but it is found everywhere. Heidegger ontologising phenomenology. Hegel gobbling up the Kantian noumena. Today there is possibly another: one that, again to evoke Rust Cohle, means to ‘start asking the right fucking questions.’ Not about what we are, but what we are not: “transcendental egos,” “subjects,” or “selves.” Perhaps not even “agents,” but I leave that problem for other minds to debate. I know what I am, a ‘disinterested onlooker’ (Husserl), but deluded that I am unconcerned.
True madness lies ahead for our species. Normativity, humanism, anti-reductionism, anything not bathed in the acid of neuroscience are all contributing to a sharpening of the knives. Building dams to keep the coming dissolution at bay they will render the shattering of the illusion that much harsher, harder. We are not going to Mars. We are going to go out of our minds.
[ Dr. Paul J. Ennis is a Research Fellow in the School of Business, Trinity College Dublin. He is the author of Continental Realism (Zero Books, 2011), co-editor with Peter Gratton of the Meillassoux Dictionary (Edinburgh University Press, 2014) and co-editor with Tziovanis Georgakis of Heidegger in the Twenty-First Century (Springer, 2015). A version of bleak theory, ‘Bleak,’ first appeared in the DVD booklet for A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (Soda Pictures, 2014).]