Bleak Theory (By Paul J. Ennis)
In the beginning there was nothing and it has been getting steadily worse ever since. You might know this, and yet repress it. Why? Because you have a mind that is capable of generating useful illusions, that’s why. How is this possible? Because you are endowed with a brain that creates a self-model which has the capacity to hide things from ‘you.’ This works better for some than for others. Some of us are brain-sick and, for whatever perverse reasons, we chip away at our delusions. In such cases recourse is possible to philosophy, which offers consolation (or so I am told), or to mysticism, which intentionally offers nothing, or to aesthetics, which is a kind of self-externalizing that lets the mind’s eye drift elsewhere. All in all, however, the armor on offer is thin. Such are the options: to mirror (philosophy), to blacken (mysticism), or to embrace contingency (aesthetics). Let’s select the latter for now. By embracing contingency I mean that aesthetics consists of deciding upon and pursuing something quite specific for intuitive rather than rational reasons. This is to try to come to know contingency in your very bones.
As a mirrorer by trade I have to abandon some beliefs to allow myself to proceed this way. My belief that truth comes first and everything else later will be bracketed. I replace this with a less demanding constraint: truth comes when you know why you believe what you believe. Oftentimes I quite simply believe things because they are austere and minimal and I have a soft spot for that kind of thing. When I allow myself to think in line with these bleak tones an unusual desire is generated: to outbleak black, to be bleaker than black. This desire comes from I know not where. It seemingly has no reason. It is an aesthetic impulse. That’s why I ask that you take from what follows what you will. It brings me no peace either way.
I cannot hope to satisfy anyone with a definition of aesthetic experience, but let me wager that those moments that let me identify with the world a-subjectively – but not objectively – are commonly associated in my mind with bleakness. My brain chemistry, my environment, and similar contingent influences have rendered me this way. So be it. Bleakness manifests most often when I am faced with what is most distinctly impersonal: with cloudscapes and dimmed, wet treescapes. Or better yet, any time I witness a stark material disfiguration of the real by our species. And flowering from this is a bleak outlook correlated with the immense, consistent, and mostly hidden, suffering that is our history – our being. The intensity arising from the global reach of suffering becomes impressive when dislocated from the personal and the particular because then you realize that it belongs to us. Whatever the instigator the result is the same: I am alerted not just to the depths of unknowing that I embody, to the fact that I will never know most of life, but also to the industrial-scale sorrow consistently operative in being. All that is, is a misstep away from ruin. Consciousness is the holocaust of happiness.
Not that I expect anything more. Whatever we may say of our cultural evolution there was nothing inscribed in reality suggesting our world should be a fit for us. I am, on this basis, not surprised by our bleak surroundings. The brain, model-creator that it is, does quite a job at systematizing the outside into a representation that allows you to function; assuming, that is, that you have been gifted with a working model. Some have not. Perhaps the real horror is to try to imagine what has been left out (even the most ardent realist surely knows you do not look at the world directly as it is). Thankfully there is no real reason for us to register most of the information out there and we were not designed to know most of it anyway. This is the minimal blessing our evolution has gifted us with. The maximal damage is that from the exaption we call consciousness cultural evolution flowers and puts our self-model at the mercy of a bombardment of social complexity – our factical situation. It is impossible to know how our information age is toying with our brain, suffice to say that the spike in depression, anxiety and self-loathing is surely some kind of signal. The brain though, like the body, can function even when maltreated. Whether this is truly to the good is difficult to say.
And yet we must be careful to remember that even in so-called eliminative materialism the space of reasons remains. The normative dimension is, as Brandom would put it, irreducible. It does not constitute the entire range of cognition, and is perhaps best deflated in light of empirical evidence, but that is beside the point. To some degree, perhaps minor, we are rational animals with the capacity for relatively free decision-making. My intuition is that ultimately the complexity of our structure means that we will never be free of certain troubles arising from what we are. Being embodied is to be torn between immense capacity and the constant threat of losing capacities. A stroke, striking as if from nowhere, can fundamentally alter anyone. This is not to suggest that progress does not occur. It can and it does, but it can also be, and often is, undone. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, bleak even, but being attuned to the bleakness of reality does not result in passivity by necessity.
Today there are projects that explicitly register all this, and nonetheless intend to operate in line with the potentiality contained within the capacities of reason. What differentiates these projects, oftentimes rationalist in nature, is that they do not follow our various universalist legacies in simply conceiving of the general human as deserving of dignity simply because we all belong to the same class of suffering beings. This is not sufficient to make humans act well. The phenomenon of suffering is easily recognizable and most humans are acutely aware of it, and yet they continue to act in ways contrary to how we ‘ought’ to respond. In fact, it is clear that knowing the sheer scale of suffering may lead to hedonism, egoism or repression. Various functional delusions can be generated by our mind, and it is hardly beyond us to rationalize selfishness on the basis of the universal. We are versatile like that. For this reason, I find myself torn between two poles. I maintain a philosophical respect for various neo-rationalist projects under development. And I remain equally under no illusion they will ever be put to much use. And I do not blame people for falling short of these demands. I am so far from them I only really take them seriously on the page. I find myself drawn, for these reasons, to the pessimist attitude, often considered a suspect stance.
One might suggest that we need only a minimal condition to be ethical. An appeal to the reality of pain in sentient and sapient creatures, perhaps. In that decision you might find solace – despite everything (or in spite of everything). It is a choice, however. Our attempts to assert an ethical universalism are bound up with a counter-logic: the bleak truth of contingency on the basis of the impersonal-in-the-personal. It is a logic quietly operative in the philosophical tradition and one I believe has been suppressed. Self-suppressed it flirts too much with a line leading us to the truth of our hallucination. It’s Nietzsche telling you about perspectivism hinging on the impersonal will-to-power and then you maturing, and forgetting. Not knocking his arguments out of the water, mind. Simply preferring not to accept it. Nobody wants to circle back round to the merry lunatic truths that make a mockery of your life. You might find it hard to get out of bed…whereas now I am sure you leap up every morning, smile on your face…The inhuman, impersonal attachment to each human has many names, but let us look at some that are found right at the heart of the post-Kantian tradition: transcendental subject, Dasein, Notion. Don’t believe me? I don’t mind, it makes no difference to me.
Let’s start with the sheer impersonality involved in Heidegger’s sustained fascination with discussing the human without using the word. Dasein is not supposed to be anything or anyone, in particular. Now once you think about it Dasein really does come across as extraordinarily peculiar. It spends a lot of its time being infested by language since this is, Heidegger insists, the place where its connection to being can be expressed. Yet it is also an easily overrun fortress that has been successfully invaded by techno-scientific jargon. When you hook this thesis up with Heidegger’s epochal shifts then the impersonal forces operative in his schema start to look downright ominous. However, we can’t blame Heidegger on what we can blame on Kant. His transcendental field of sense also belongs to one and all. And so, like Dasein, no one in particular. This aspect of the transcendental field still remains contentious. The transcendental is, at once, housed in a human body but also, in its sense-making functions, to be considered somehow separate from it. It is not quite human, but not exactly inhuman either.
There is, then, some strange aspect, I can think of no other word for it, inhabiting our own flowing world of a coherent ego, or ‘I,’ that allows for the emergence of a pooled intersubjectivity. Kant’s account, of course, had two main aims: to constrain groundless metaphysical speculation and, in turn, to ground the sciences. Yet his readers did not always follow his path. Kant’s decision to make a distinction between the phenomena and the noumena is perhaps the most consequential one in our tradition and is surely one of the greatest examples of opening up what you intended to close down. The nature of the noumenal realm has proven irresistible to philosophers and it has recursive consequences for how we see ourselves. If the nominal realm names a reality that is phenomenally clouded then it surely precedes, ontologically, the ego-as-center; even if it is superseded by the ego’s modelling function for us. Seen within the wider context of the noumenal realm it is legitimate to ask whether the ‘I’ is merely a densely concentrated, discrete packet amidst a wider flow; a locus amidst the chaos. The ontological generation of egos is then shorn back until all you have is Will (Schopenhaeur), Will to Power (Nietzsche), or, in a less generative sense ‘what gives,’ es gibt (Heidegger). This way of thinking belongs, when one takes the long-view, to the slow-motion deconstruction of the Cartesian ego in post-Kantian philosophy, albeit with Husserl cutting a lonely revivalist figure here. Today the ego is trounced everywhere, but there is perhaps no better example that the ‘no-self-at-all’ argument of Metzinger, but even the one-object-amongst-many thesis of object oriented ontology traces a similar line.
The destruction of the Cartesian ego may have its lineage in Kant, but the notion of the impersonal as force, process, or will, owes much to Hegel. In his metaphysics Hegel presents us with a cosmic loop explicable through retroactive justification. At the beginning, the un-articulated Notion, naming what is at the heart-of-the-real, sets off without knowledge of itself, but with the emergence of thinking subjects the Notion is finally able to think itself. In this transition the gap between the un-articulated and articulated Notion is closed, and the entire thing sets off again in directions as yet unknown. Absolute knowing is, after all, not totalized knowing, but a constant, vigilant knowing navigating its way through contingency and recognizing the necessity below it all. But that’s just the thing: despite being important conduits to this process, and having a quite special and specific function, it’s the impersonal process that really counts. In the end Kant’s attempt to close down discussion about the nature of the noumenal realm simply made it one of the most appealing themes for a philosopher to pursue. Censorship helps sales.
Speaking of sales, all kinds of new realism are being hawked on the various para-academic street-corners. All of them benefit from a tint of recognizability rooted, I would suggest, in the fact that ontological realism has always been hidden in plain sight; for any continentalist willing to look. What is different today is how the question of the impersonal attachments affecting the human comes not from inside philosophy, but from a number of external pressures. In what can only be described as a tragic situation for metaphysicians, truth now seeps into the discipline from the outside. We see thinking these days where philosophers promised there was none. The brilliance of continental realism lies in reminding us how this is an immense opportunity for philosophers to wake up from various self-induced slumbers, even if that means stepping outside the protected circle from time to time. It involves bringing this bubbling, left-over question of ontological realism right to the fore. This does not mean ontological realism will come to be accepted and then casually integrated into the tradition. If anything the backlash may eviscerate it, but the attempt will have been made. Or was, and quietly passed.
And the attempt should be made because the impersonality infecting ontological realist excesses such as the transcendental subject (in-itself), the Notion, or Dasein are attuned to what we can now see as the (delayed) flowering of the Copernican revolution. The de-centering is now embedded enough that whatever defense of the human we posit it must not be dishonest. We cannot hallucinate our way out of our ‘cold world’. If we know that our self-model is itself a hallucination, but a very real one, then what do we do then? Is it enough to situate the real in our ontological flesh and blood being-there that is not captured by thinking? Or is it best to remain with thinking as a contingent error that despite its aberrancy nonetheless spews out the truth? These avenues are grounded in consciousness and in our bodies and although both work wonders they can just as easily generate terrors. Truth qualified by these terrors is where one might go. No delusion can outflank these constraints forever. Bled of any delusional disavowal, one tries to think without hope. Hope is undignified anyway. Dignity involves resisting all provocation and remaining sane when you know it’s bleakness all the way down.
Some need hope, no? As I write this I feel the beautiful soul rising from his armchair, but I do not want to hear it. Bleak theory is addressed to your situation: a first worlder inhabiting an accelerated malaise. The ethics to address poverty, inequality, and hardship will be different. Our own heads are disordered and we do not quite know how to respond to the field outside it. You will feel guilty for your myopia, and you deserve it, but you cannot elide by endlessly pointing to the plank in the other’s eye. You can pray through your tears, and in doing so ironically demonstrate the disturbance left by the death of God, but what does this shore up? It builds upon cathedral ruins: those sites where being is doubled-up and bent-over-backwards trying to look inconspicuous as just another option. Do you want to write religion back into being? Why not, as Ayache suggests, just ruin yourself? I hope it is clear I don’t have any answers: all clarity is a lie these days. I can only offer bleak theory as a way of seeing and perhaps a way of operating. It ‘works’ as follows: begin with confusion and shear away at what you can. Whatever is left is likely the closest thing approximating to what we name truth. It will be strictly negative. Elimination of errors is the best you can hope for.
I don’t know how to end this, so I am just going to end it.