Tithi Bhattacharya / Gareth Dale
Never has the global economy faced such a thorough challenge from a virus. Previous epidemics scythed through populations and ravaged livelihoods, but they remained contained on a regional scale or, where global, impacted the world economy less precipitously. Noteworthy too is the fact that never in recent memory have Euro-American countries, whose governments and media still dominate global public discourse, been so affected by a health crisis. Pandemics that kill people in Asia and Africa do not create quite the same reverberations in media conglomerates as they do when they hit the hearts of imperial hegemons.
Covid-19 has starkly revealed not only the brutal systemic priorities of capitalism--profit-making over life-making—but also the relationship between capital and the capitalist state form. We should be attentive to this relationship in order to face a darker truth about this crisis: that it is far from an anomaly and that lacking a body blow to the system, we should prepare for a world where such crises and its effects become part of our daily lives.
In a recent article, Cinzia Arruzza and Felice Mometti have sketched the heterogeneity of responses of different governments to the pandemic. While some, such as Israel, India and Hungary, have certainly used the crisis to shore up authoritarianism, the pattern, according to Arruzza and Mometti, is by no means uniform. They cite examples of states such as the US where Trump, invoking the old racist “states’ rights” trope, is letting state governors decide the course of action for their own states, and Italy and Germany where attempts to enhance executive powers is being challenged by other governing institutions such as the EU. Given this diversity of governance strategies, Arruzza and Mometti conclude, “[r]ather than imposing abstract formulas upon a complex reality, it is more useful to pay attention to the experimentation with diverse forms of governance, both novel and age old, in the management of the pandemic.”
We agree with Arruzza and Mometti that states have responded differentially in their efforts to govern the crisis. Where we depart from their analysis is when they say that this disparateness implies that abstraction is redundant. We can begin with some general conclusions, drawing on the state-capital relationship.
First, just as at the start of the Great Depression, all governments are seeking to steer the rudder back to “business as usual” as fast as they can. The effort is to project the crisis as a temporary aberration. Second, and following from the first, states are currently investing in life-making institutions—setting up hospitals, distributing food, compensating wages from state funds—but they are doing so because they are forced to and therefore always on a temporary basis, and often such efforts are buttressed by repressive measures. Third, in the coming period we will see state policies seesaw between neoliberal and Keynesian—or even state-capitalist—responses. Such oscillations will undoubtedly produce much chaos at the level of politics. We will see both social democracy and centrism make comebacks, and there is the ever-present threat of authoritarian populism bordering into fascism, but we cannot let these turbulent currents at the level of the political blind us to what are steady pressures from capital: to accumulate with minimal sacrifice to profit and with scant respect for life. Fourth, the crisis is exacerbating existing oppression, amplifying the hardships and iniquities imposed on Black and Brown people, on women, and on the poor.
In tracing common drivers of the crisis, we explore in this essay what happens when the imperatives of life and life-making interface radically with the imperatives of profit-making. Because the crisis induced by the coronavirus is a public health crisis, questions of “economy” and “welfare” are thrust together in an unprecedented manner. We develop our analysis along two doubled axes: one, the dyad of welfare and repressive functions of capitalist states; and two, the dual tendencies towards state interventionism and neoliberalism that we are witnessing in states’ responses to the crisis. The first doubled relation concerns a state’s relationship to its citizens; the other is its relationship to capital.
In tracing common drivers of the crisis, we explore in this essay what happens when the imperatives of life and life-making interface radically with the imperatives of profit-making. Because the crisis induced by the coronavirus is a public health crisis, questions of “economy” and “welfare” are thrust together in an unprecedented manner.
Welfare and Repression: A Troubled Twining
There is always an intertwined and profoundly contradictory relationship between the welfare and repressive functions of capitalist states. Unlike states in previous class societies, capitalist states have always managed social welfare in order to maintain and constrain the material security of “their” populations. They establish and shape, on a day-to-day basis, institutions of social reproduction of the workforce. These have included, simultaneously, tasks of educating and keeping healthy its citizens as well as labelling, policing, and surveilling them.
These principles, of social policy and of profit-making, may clash in detail, but they share a common root. As one C19 British Poor Law commissioner remarked,
It is an admitted maxim of social policy that the first charge upon the land must be the maintenance of those reared upon it. Society exists for the preservation of property; but subject to the condition that the wants of the few shall only be realized by first making provision for the necessities of the many.
Today’s “commissioners” tailor welfare institutions to the demands of markets and states for fit, educated workers to enhance capital’s competitive edge. Capital tries to impose its discipline on the biological rhythms of birth, aging and death, but its relationship to life-making is one of reluctant dependence. It is dependent on a healthy, able-bodied workforce but reluctant to have resources diverted to life-making institutions. What makes this crisis so unusual is that it has forced to the fore capital’s dependence on its workforce.
If in liberal normality the welfare and repressive spheres, although connected, are most often experienced as separate, right now they’re scrambled together in unprecedented ways. The public health crisis has provoked the imposition of a state of emergency. Security forces are commanded onto the streets as agents of welfare. Police are mobilized as the protectors of public health, the enforcers of social distancing. States are justifying intensified surveillance as a public safety measure.
The unleashing of repressive organs as agents of welfare has brought sickening scenes. In India, a man was beaten to death by the police when he stepped out to buy biscuits. He was of course Muslim. In France, riots broke out in the banlieux, where predominantly racialized groups have long been crammed into high rise accommodation, enduring chronic police intimidation, yet now the streets are patrolled by police as public health enforcers. In America a fascist-libertarian response has been to demand that the state step back from mandating health measures such as quarantine and lockdown. A danger is that such disastrous (and racist and social-Darwinist)arguments find a wider audience precisely because states deploy repression in the goal of protecting public health.
Welfare regimes, or social reproduction capacities, however, are necessarily also double-sided under capitalism. “Welfare from above” includes the investments in social reproduction that capital and states are forced to grant in their own interests. Here is where capital’s reluctant dependence on social reproduction is revealed. But in these pandemic times we are also witness to a rich outburst of “welfare from below,” or class struggle social reproduction. So while states and capital are reversing, temporarily and in a piecemeal manner, a few planks of the neoliberal edifice (not least, the devaluation of care work), workers, especially women workers, are leading wildcat strikes to demand PPE and to insist that production be directed to human need, and ordinary people are setting up food banks and mutual aid networks. The contradictions between the “from above” and “from below” facets of social reproduction will only intensify with the deepening of the crisis. As mass unemployment, poverty and starvation stalk the globe we are bound to witness a sharper polarization between forces advocating social Darwinism, claiming that the limited social reproduction cake be monopolized by the fittest, and forces of socialist collectivism fighting for a world where the cake belongs to the bakers.
“Welfare from above” includes the investments in social reproduction that capital and states are forced to grant in their own interests. Here is where capital’s reluctant dependence on social reproduction is revealed. But in these pandemic times we are also witness to a rich outburst of “welfare from below,” or class struggle social reproduction.
Ghosts of State Capitalism in a Neoliberal Landscape
The crisis is unique, in that it begins as a “demobilization crisis.” With swathes of industry shut down in the interests of public health, the onrushing slump is inevitable. It hasn’t yet revealed its shape. It won’t be a V, it may be a U, but it’ll likely be more protracted: a W or an L. With little prospect of a Covid-19 vaccine until 2021, production and consumption look set to be hobbled by fears of coronaviral contagion and by punctuated lockdowns. The dislocation already wreaked, in the shape of mass unemployment, bankruptcies, and ballooning consumer, business, and public debt, will resist easy fixes. A deflationary spiral may loom around the corner, with its escalating effects on debt.
The last global “L” (or “W”) occurred in the 1930s, when plummeting output was followed by a deflationary spiral, years of flatlining output, the involution of global trade, and pervasive economic conflict and social pain. Food, then as now, was destroyed by the ton, as demand fell, even as need rose. Businesses scrapped over shrinking markets; workers and the unemployed fought over the few remaining jobs or looked left and fought back through marches, sitdown strikes and unionization.
It was in these fires of the 1930s that new accumulation regimes were forged. From the ashes of economic liberalism arose Keynesianism and the New Deal, import-substitution industrialization, and war economies (fascist, Stalinist, and corporatist). The nation state impressed its contours on the new arrangements: nationalized monopolies, capital controls and national planning–and the captive savings pools from which welfare expansion, or institutions of social reproduction, could be funded.
Will the gravity of the public health emergency, and of the economic plunge, bring back state capitalism and planning? Certainly, the interventionist capacity of the Chinese state vis-à-vis Chinese capital (not only vis-à-vis its citizens) conditioned its relatively swift response to Covid-19. In the West, CEOs are lining up to demand that taxpayers assume their losses. Businesses will be bailed out, and governments will referee and steer the course of collapse, and the attempts to kickstart growth.
Yet although government interventions have been on a massive scale, and we’ve seen governments like that of the US ordering industry giants like GM to produce ventilators, this will not be the state-capitalist 1930s redux. Global supply chains, even though many are being pruned, are too densely interwoven, and finance too internationalized. Neoliberal norms, including the dominance of corporations and the veneration of markets, are carved deep into the architecture of power, in liberal Britain and statist China alike.
State responses will arrive in three overlapping waves: coordinating responses to the health emergency, responding to economic and social collapse, and attempting to kickstart economic growth through stimulus packages.
As a left, we should have our own response to these phases. For the first, we must take our lead from the existing struggles on the ground: the inspiring wildcat strikes by workers refusing to make non-essential goods or to risk their own health and that of their families, the organizing being done by women and feminists globally to protest the double burden of essential work and increased housework during lockdown, and the battles being waged by antiracist activists against the brutality of incarcerating people during a pandemic or penning them in detention camps. The lessons from these battles provide a blueprint for how we should frame our response in the next two phases. We must continue to demand that life-making activities and institutions be prioritized to ward off social collapse, while investment be directed to creating public works programs and a low-energy green economy, a just transition, rather than bailing out the airline industry.
The great Muslim polymath, Ibn Khaldun, who lost his family to the Black Death, observed that the Plague had overtaken dynasties “at the time of their senility, when they had reached the limit of their duration.” There are uncanny echoes of Khaldun’s comment in how a pandemic is exposing the past brutalities and future ruins of our own “senile” system.
What we outline above are general tendencies within the system that we can expect in the coming juncture. But tendencies within capitalism that have held true since its birth are no longer the only factors that will determine the fate of life on this planet. Our current crisis should be understood against the backdrop of a decaying capitalism. That is to say, capitalism is tending toward sharper economic crises, and it is generating biological and environmental hazards on an escalating scale. The accumulated economic pasts of capitalism and its cumulative depredation of nature have etched their indelible marks on the system.
And rescuing this system through reform is no longer an ambitious hope or the subject of an interesting intra-left debate, but a dangerous fantasy.
State responses will arrive in three overlapping waves: coordinating responses to the health emergency, responding to economic and social collapse, and attempting to kickstart economic growth through stimulus packages. But as a left, we should have our own response to these phases.
The Nature of the Crisis
The coronavirus crisis is a crisis of capitalism in its causation and through its effects. A microscopic pathogen is exposing the pathologies of the larger social system. In this sense it is not a “natural” crisis but a crisis wrought by nature thoroughly inflected by capitalism.
Let’s start with causation. A zoonotic disease can jump from animal to human. The linkages from bat to pangolin (a likely intermediate host) to human all appear accidental. But if we look behind the xenophobic headlines we can see how deeply system-conditioned they are.
Following Rob Wallace’s argument that agribusiness “has entered a strategic alliance with influenza”, we can see how factory livestock farming sets up ideal environments for pathogens to spread. Once it’s in a chicken, duck or pig, the next hosts are nicely lined up, cheek by jowl, with near-identical genes. Three-quarters of “new or emerging” diseases that infect humans have originated in wild or domesticated animals.
In the case of coronavirus, it’s our relationship to wilderness and its animals that mapped the pathogenesis of this crisis. In early capitalism, trappers fanned out across vast territories to capture creatures for the luxury fur trade. Now almost all the wildernesses are encroached and the primary forests are being decimated. As a recent study by US wildlife epidemiologists has highlighted, deforestation and other forms of habitat encroachment bring humans up close to wildlife. The last four decades have seen a two- to three-fold increase in zoonosis–pathogens’ leaps from animal to human.
Meanwhile the demand for luxury “wild” animal products continues. In China there continues a lucrative trade in wild animals for food and medicine, while as the recent popular series Tiger King shows, exotic breeding programs and traffic in wild animals is not a preserve of China or African countries but is alive and well in the belly of the beast, the US.
We are speaking here of the “metabolic rift”—the alienation of humanity from the natural world with capitalism orchestrating a ruthlessness toward land and the life forms on it.
Capitalist production depends on poverty and encourages waste. Nowhere is this clearer than in agriculture, increasingly geared to meat, the most inefficient means of converting sunshine, rainfall and soil into amino acids and carbohydrates for human consumption. One hectare planted with rice or potatoes feeds twenty people in a year; the same hectare given over to sheep or cattle can feed only one or two. Half of the world’s crops are fed to livestock, and they consume vast quantities of water and (indirectly) oil too. Worldwide, meat production increased nearly 5 times in the second half of the 20th century, and it continues to soar. The fires in the Amazon last year were above all along roads that transport cattle to the slaughterhouses. In this, coronavirus and climate change share a root cause.
And they share something else. They highlight the thwarting of the human ability to mitigate risk, insofar as its mitigation rubs against the corporate grain. The risks of climate breakdown are well known, existential, yet next to nothing is being done to mitigate them–as shown each month in the measurements from Mauna Loa. So too the Covid-19 pandemic. Public health experts and social scientists have for years been warning of a repeat of a viral outbreak similar in scope and lethality to the 1918 pandemic. And just like the Cassandras of climate change, these public health warnings were blithely ignored or ridiculed by states and bosses.
There is a dark temporal suicide embedded in these gestures of bourgeois denial. They ignore the warnings because their noses are at the windowpane of the present alone.
The greatest achievement of the bourgeois discourse of Progress was the secularization of Time. Capitalist progress was projected through time as immanent, as coextensive with ‘Nature.’ Colonizing Europe harnessed this bourgeois Time to conquer Space: colonies, marked by their distance from the metropole, were cast as “backward.” Our current crisis, cuing up ravaged futures and unmet potentials, is finally extinguishing this Immanent Time as it unmoors historical time from its long-held bourgeois tethers. Pathogens, forest fires and floods are de-naturalizing bourgeois empty time, stamping out its smooth progressive trajectory and reinvesting it with messianic lurches, breaks, and therefore possibilities.
And as the global ruling class fights to restore time and the world to their murderous normalcy, our class can restore the urgency of now, articulated through “leaps, leaps, leaps.”
by Nick Land
This is the freedom of the void which rises to a passion and takes shape in the world; while still remaining theoretical, it takes shape in the Hindu fanaticism of pure contemplation, but when it turns to actual practice, it takes shape in religion and politics alike as the fanaticism of destruction— the destruction of the whole subsisting social order—as the elimination of individuals who are objects of suspicion to any social order, and the annihilation of any organization which tries to rise anew from the ruins [H VII].
the republic being permanently menaced from the outside by the despots surrounding it, the means to its preservation cannot be imagined as moral means, for the republic will preserve itself only by war, and nothing is less moral than war. I ask how one will be able to demonstrate that in a state rendered immoral by its obligations, it is essential that the individual be moral? I will go further: it is a very good thing he is not. The Greek lawgivers perfectly appreciated the capital necessity of corrupting the member citizens in order that, their moral dissolution coming into conflict with the establishment and its values, there would result the insurrection that is always indispensible to a political system of perfect happiness which, like republican government, must necessarily excite the hatred and envy of all its foreign neighbours. Insurrection, thought these sage legislators, is not at all a moral condition; however, it has got to be a republic’s permanent condition. Hence it would be no less absurd than dangerous to require that those who are to ensure the perpetual immoral subversion of the established order themselves be moral beings: for the state of a moral man is one of tranquillity and peace, the state of an immoral man is one of perpetual unrest that pushes him to, and identifies him with, the necessary insurrection in which the republican must always keep the government of which he is a member [S III 498].
We have no true pleasure except in expending uselessly, as if a wound opens in us [X 170].
the most unavowable aspects of our pleasures connect us the most solidly [IV 218].
It has often been suggested—not least by Sartre—that Bataille replaces dialectic and revolution with the paralysed revolt of transgression. It is transgression that opens the way to tragic communication, the exultation in the utter immolation of order that consummates and ruins humanity in a sacrifice without limits. Bataille is a philosopher not of indifference, but of evil, of an evil that will always be the name for those processes that flagrantly violate all human utility, all accumulative reason, all stability and all sense.
He considers Nietzsche to have amply demonstrated that the criteria of the good: selfidentity, permanence, benevolence, and transcendent individuality, are ultimately rooted in the preservative impulses of a peculiarly sordid, inert, and cowardly species of animals. Despite his pseudo-sovereignty, the Occidental God—as the guarantor of the good—has always been the ideal instrument of human reactivity, the numbingly antiexperimental principle of utilitarian calculus. To defy God, in a celebration of evil, is to threaten mankind with adventures that they have been determined to outlaw.
The Kantian cultural revolution is associated with a deepened usage of juridical discourse in philosophy. Transcendental philosophy equates knowing with legislation, displacing the previously dominant axis of argumentation—extended between scepticism and belief—with one organized in terms of legitimacy and illegitimacy. The sense of logic, for example, undergoes a massive—if largely subterranean—shift; from evident truth to necessary rule. The metaphysical errors which Kant critiques are formally described as crimes, and more specifically, as violations of rights. The subject is divided into faculties, with strictly demarcated domains of legitimate sovereignty, beyond which their exercise is a transgression. Most important to Kant are the reciprocal injustices of reason and understanding, with his First Critique detailing the trespasses of reason upon the understanding, or theory, and his Second Critique defending reason against theoretical incursions into its proper domain; that of moral legislation. The lower faculties of sensation, and, to a lesser extent, imagination, are of more indirect concern, since they are branded as incorrigible reprobates; corrupted by their insinuation into the swamp of the body.
Kant initiated the modern tradition of insidious theism by shielding God from theoretical investigation, whilst maintaining the moral necessity of his existence. God was exiled into a space of pure practical reason, simultaneously protected against intellectual transgression and underwriting moral law. In his Critique of Judgement Kant describes the moral impossibility of a world without God, and the fate of one attempting to live according to it, in the following terms:
Deceit, violence, and envy will always be rife around him, although he himself is honest, peaceable, and benevolent; and the other righteous men he meets in the world, no matter how deserving they may be of happiness, will be subjected by nature, which takes no heed of such deserts, to all the evils of want, disease, and untimely death, just as are the other animals of the earth. And so it will continue to be until one wide grave engulfs them all—just and unjust, there is no distinction in the grave—and hurls them back into the abyss of the aimless chaos of matter from which they were taken—they that were able to believe themselves the final end of creation [K X 415–16].
This passage might be from Sade’s Justine: the Misfortunes of Virtue, reminding us that the age of Kant is tangled with that of Sade, a writer who explored the exacerbation of transgression, rather than its juridical resolution. Where Kant consolidated the modern pact between philosophy and the state, Sade fused literature with crime in the dungeons of both old and new regimes. Sade insisted upon reasoning about God repeating original sin, but even after obliterating him with a blizzard of theoretical discourse his hunger for atheological aggression remained insatiable, Sade does not seek to negotiate with God or the state, but to ceaselessly resist their possibility. Accordingly, his political pamphlets do not appeal for improved institutions, but only for the restless vigilance of armed masses in the streets. ‘Abstract negation’ or ‘negative freedom’ are Hegel’s expressions for this sterilizing resistance which erases the position of the subject. It could equally be described as real death.
Bataille’s engagement with Sade is prolonged and intense, but also sporadic, consisting of articles and essays which never reach the pitch of intimacy characterizing Sur Nietzsche. After Nietzsche, however, it is Sade who comes closest to such an intimacy, and—like Nietzsche—accompanies Bataille throughout the entire length of his textual voyage, with an intellectual solidarity so great that it touches upon a complete erasure of distinction. Sade plays an important role in luring Bataille’s discussion of eroticism into its abyssal (non)sense, because his writing is baked to charcoal in the sacred. No writer fathoms more profoundly the utter inutility of the erotic impulse, nor its sacrilegious and insurrectionary fury. ‘Sade consecrated interminable works to the affirmation of unacceptable values: according to him life is the search for pleasure, and pleasure is proportional to the destruction of life. In other words, life attains the highest degree of intensity in a monstrous negation of its principle’ [X 179].
The orgies, massacres, and blasphemies of the Sadean text knit almost seamlessly onto Bataille’s obsession with an intolerable sacrificial wastage vomited into the suppurating cavity of the divine. Bataille finds in these texts ‘the excessive negation of the principle upon which life rests’ [X 168], a pitch of voluptuary intensity at which eroticism passes unreservedly into the sacred. Compared to the Sade-interpretations of Blanchot, for instance, despite complex affinities and inter-textual communications, there is a ravine as great as any that could be imagined; an incommensurability of thought insinuated into a common and inevitable vocabulary. ‘Negation’, ‘crime’, ‘atheism’, ‘revolt’, are words that Bataille associates with a heterogeneity so repugnant to elevated thought that its repression must be presupposed in the origination of any possible speculation, whereas for Blanchot these are words that belong to reason itself, at least, from the moment that it is permitted to find itself in the solitude of literature. It is only our inertia and our hypocrisy—as Blanchot suggests with an insidious power—that protect us from the latent fury of reason. Unlike Blanchot, Bataille does not emphasize the ruthless consistency of enlightenment rationalism in Sade’s writings, even though he acknowledges that Sade seems ‘to have been the most consequential representative of XVIIIth century French materialism’ [I 337]. ‘By definition, excess is external to reason’ [X 168], he remarks in one discussion of Sade, and it is an incitement to criminality, rather than an exultant rationality that he detects in passages such as this:
atheism is the one system of all those prone to reason. As we gradually proceeded to our enlightenment, we came more and more to feel that, motion being inherent in matter, the prime mover existed only as an illusion, and that all that exists having to be in motion, the motor was useless; we sensed that this chimerical divinity, prudently invented by the earliest legislators, was, in their hands, simply one more means to enthrall us, and that, reserving unto themselves the right to make the phantom speak, they knew very well how to get him to say nothing but what would shore up the preposterous laws whereby they declared they served us [S III 482].
Either believe in God and adore him, or disbelieve and demobilize, for it is as senseless to rage against omnipotence as inexistence. Thus it is that Sade’s opponents take the two strands of his defiance to be mutually contradicting, to cancel each other, and—once aufhebt—expressing either a futile rage flung into the void, or a desperate plea for reconciliation. ‘Blasphemy is never logical. If an omnipotent God exists, the blasphemer can only be damaging himself by insulting him; if he does not exist, there is no one there to insult’, writes Hayman [Hay 31]. After all, how can one revolt against a fiction? It is perhaps a symptom of fixation or regression, an unresolved infantilism in any case, for affect to be detached so completely from an acknowledged reality.
In a world divided between theistic enthusiasts and secularist depressives there is little patience for the atheist who nurtures a passionate hatred for God. The mixture of naturalism and blasphemy that characterizes the Sadean text occupies the space of our blindness, to which Bataille’s writings are not unreasonably assimilated. If there is contradiction here it is one that is coextensive with the unconscious; the consequence of a revolt incommensurate with the ontological weight of its object. That God has wrought such loathesomeness without even having existed only exacerbates the hatred pitched against him. An atheism that does not hunger for God’s blood is an inanity, and the anaemic feebleness of secular rationalism has so little appeal that it approximates to an argument for his existence. What is suggested by the Sadean furore is that anyone who does not exult at the thought of driving nails through the limbs of the Nazarene is something less than an atheist; merely a disappointed slave.
Amongst the diseases Bataille shares with Nietzsche is the insistence that the death of God is not an epistemic conviction, but a crime. It is no less worthy of cathedrals than the tyrant it abolished, and whose grave it continues to desecrate. Indeed, such new cathedrals are inextricable from the unholy festivities of desecration which resound through them, as the texts of Sade, Nietzsche, and Bataille themselves illustrate.
The illimitable criminality driving Bataille’s writing’s provokes no hint of repentence within it, but that does not make him a pagan, which is to say juridically: unfit to plead. Lacking the slightest interest in justification, innocence is not an aspiration he nourishes. He is closer to Satan than to Pan, propelled by a defiant culpability. Bataille is altogether too morbid to be a pagan, and yet, despite what is in part a reactive relation to Christianity, the thought of necessary crime is an interpretation of the tragic, and of hubris. Tragic fate is the necessity that the forbidden happen, and happen as the forbidden. Quoting what he takes to be a latent popular maxim, Bataille writes that ‘the prohibition is there to be violated’ [X 67]. He associates this subterranean collective insight with an ‘indifference to logic’ [X 67] at the root of social regulation, since ‘[t]he violation committed is not of a nature to suppress the possibility and the sense of the emotion opposed to it: it is even the justification and the source’ [X 67]. One of his formulae for this effective paradox is the ‘viola t [ion of] prohibition …according to a rule’ [X 75]. Such a violation is not so much provoked by prohibition, as it is compelled by an inexorable process to which prohibition is a response. This thought is commonly expressed within his writings in terms of the economic inevitability of evil, and also, occasionally, as the eruption of transgression.
As an overt theme, ‘transgression’ is nothing like as dominant within Bataille’s writings as is often suggested, and it is only with extraordinary arbitrariness that he can be described as a ‘philosopher of transgression’. If it were not for the sustained discussion to be found in Eroticism it is unlikely that this term would have come to be read as anything more than the marginal elaboration of a more basic problem (that of expenditure, consumption, or sacrifice). Nevertheless, criminal variations analagous to transgression are prolifically distributed throughout his writings, and lend themselves with apparent ease to a measure of formulation.
In a broadly Nietzschean fashion, Bataille understands law as the imperative to the preservation of discrete being. Law summarizes conditions of existence, and shares its arbitrariness with the survival of the human race. The servility of a legal existence is that of an unconditional one (of existence for its own sake); involving the submission of consumption to its reproduction, and eventually to its complete normative suppression within an obsessional productivism. The word Bataille usually employs to mark the preserve of law is ‘discontinuity’, which is broadly synonymous with ‘transcendence’; Bataille’s thought of discontinuity is more intricate than his fluent deployment of the word might indicate. It is the condition for transcendent illusion or ideality, and precisely for this reason it cannot be grasped by a transcendent apparatus, by the inter-knitted series of conceptions involving negation, logical distinction, simple disjunction, essential difference, etc.
Discontinuity is not ontologically grounded (in the fashion of a Leibnizean monad for instance), but positively fabricated in the same process that amasses resources for its disposal. Accumulation does not presuppose a subject or individual, but rather founds one. This is because any possible self—or relative isolation—is only ever precipitated as a precarious digression within a general economy, perpetually renegotiated across the scale of energy flows. The relative autonomy of the organism is not an ontological given but a material achievement which—even at its apex—remains quite incommensurable with the notion of an individual soul or personality. It is in large part because death attests so strongly to this fact that theology has monotonously demanded its systematic effacement.
Because isolation is—in an abnormal sense—‘quantitative’, quantity cannot be conceived arithmetically on the basis of discretion. Base, general, or solar economics— which are amongst Bataille’s names for economics at the level of emergent discontinuities—cannot be organized by any prior conceptual matrix. The distinctions between quantity/quality, degree/kind, analogue/ digital, etc., which typically manage economic thought, are all dependent upon the prior acceptance of discontinuity or derivative articulation. It is obvious that the economics or energetics which Bataille associates with base cosmology cannot be identified with any kind of physicalistic theory, since the logical and mathematical concepts underlying any such theory are devastated by the radical interrogation of simple difference. With the operation of a sufficiently delicate materialist apparatus general economy can in large measure be thought, but in the end its fragmentary and ironic character stems from a delirial genesis in the violation of articulate lucidity.
The solar source of all terrestrial resources commits them to an abysmal generosity, which Bataille calls ‘glory’. This is perhaps best understood as a contagious profligacy, according to which all inhibition, accumulation, and reservation is destined to fail. The infrastructure of the terrestrial process inheres in the obstructive character of the earth, in its mere bulk as a momentary arrest of solar energy flow, which lends itself to hypostatization. When the silting-up of energy upon the surface of the planet is interpreted by its complex consequences as rigid utility, a productivist civilization is initiated, whose culture involves a history of ontology, and a moral order. Systemic limits to growth require that the inevitable re-commencement of the solar trajectory scorches jagged perforations through such civilizations. The resultant ruptures cannot be securely assimilated to a meta-social homeostatic mechanism, because they have an immoderate, epidemic tendency. Bataille writes of ‘the virulence of death’ [X 70]. Expenditure is irreducibly ruinous because it is not merely useless, but also contagious. Nothing is more infectious than the passion for collapse. Predominant amongst the incendiary and epidemic gashes which contravene the interests of mankind are eroticism, base religion, inutile criminality, and war.
by the book: The Thirst for Annihilation/Chapter 3: Transgression by Nick Land
by Nick Land
It is tempting to understand the difference between ‘general’ and ‘restricted’ economy as commensurate with that between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ systems. In both cases the former terms seem to refer to the total field of energy exchange, and the latter to the differentiated regions within such a field. A translation of this kind is not wholly inappropriate, but it simplifies the situation excessively. That which circulates in an economy of the kind Bataille describes is less a ‘content’ with a general and a local intelligibility than the capacity for relative isolation or restriction as such. There is a sense (that of scientific objectivism) in which utility presupposes negative entropy, but abstract order of this kind is quite different from the ‘canalization’ [VII 467] which is utility’s basic characteristic. The quasi-autonomous territories which inhibit the concrete universalization of the second thermodynamic law are not conditions of ‘composition’ as Bataille uses this term, they are composition as such. In other words, composition is simultaneous with the real differentiation ‘of’ space.
It is thus that Bataille extracts ‘production’ from the idealist schemas which continue to operate within Marx’s analysis, those lending the critique of political economy a marked humanist tendency. Work is not an origin, sublating divine creation into historical concretion, but an impersonal potential to exploit (release) energy. The humanized exploitation of class societies is not without a prototype, since surplus production is only possible because of the solar inheritance it pillages. Bataille’s solar economics is inscribed within the lacuna in Marxism opened by the absence of a theory of excess, and describes the truly primitive (impersonal) accumulation of resources. Such cosmichistorical economy is axiomatized by the formula that ‘the energy produced is superior to the energy necessary to its production’ [VII 466], and maps out the main-sequence of terrestrial development, from which the convulsions of civilization are an aberration.
Strictly speaking, the libidinal main-sequence, impersonal accumulation, or primary (solar) inhibition, emerges simultaneously with life, and persists in a more or less naked state up until the beginning of sedentary agriculture, sometime after the last ice-age. Life is simply the name we give to the surface-effects of the mainsequence. Compared to the violently erratic libidinal processes that follow it, the main-sequence seems remarkably stable. Nevertheless, libido departs from its pre-history only because it has already become unstable within it, and even though the preponderant part of the main-sequence occurs within a geological time-span, the evidence of a basic tendency to the geometric acceleration of the process is unmistakable.
The main-sequence is a burning cycle, which can be understood as a physico-chemical volatilization of the planetary crust, a complexification of the energy-cycle, or, more generally, as a dilation of the solar-economic circuits that compose organic matter, knitting it into a fabric that includes an ever-increasing proportion of the (‘inorganic’) energetic and geo-chemical planetary infrastructure. Of course, the distinction between the organic and the inorganic is without final usefulness, because organic matter is only a name for that fragment of inorganic material that has been woven into meta-stable regional compositions. If a negative prefix is to be used, it would be more accurate to place it on the side of life, since the difference is unilateral, with inorganic matter proving itself to be non-exclusive, or indifferent to its organization, whereas life necessarily operates on the basis of selection and filtering functions.
When colloidal matter enters the main-sequence it begins to differentiate two tendencies, which Freud characterized at a higher level with a distinction between ‘φ’ and ‘ψ’, or communication and isolation (immanence/transcendence, death and confusion)8. Organic libido emerges with the gradual differentiation of what seem superficially to be two groups of drives (Freud does not describe them as such until later). A progressive tendency isolates or ‘individuates’ the organism, first by nucleation (prokaryotes to eukaryotes), and then through the isolation of a germ-line, dividing the protoplasm into ‘generative cells’ and ‘somatic cells’. This is the archaic form of Freud’s ‘Eros’; on the one hand a tension between soma and generation, and on the other a conservation of dissipative forces within an economy of the species, leading ultimately to sexuality. But this erotic or speciating tendency is perpetually endangered by a regressive tendency that leads to dissolution (Thanatos).
The ‘φ’ or communication tendency accentuates the various ‘interactions’ between biological matter and its ‘outside’, and is thus equivalent to a lowering of the organic barrier threshold, essential to photo-reactivity, assimilation, cybernetic regulation, nutrition, etc. This is the complex of organic functions which Bataille associates with primary immanence. The ‘ψ’ or isolation tendency is the inhibition of exchange, a raising of the barrier threshold that generates a measure of invariant stability, the conservation of code, controlled expenditure of bio-energetic reserves, etc. The combined operation of these tendencies effects a selective distribution in the degree of fusion between the organism and its environment (a difference that is not given but produced), which precariously stabilizes a level of composition. The maximum state of φ ( φmax) is equivalent to the complete dissolution of the organism, at which point its persistence would be a matter of unrestricted chance, free-floating at the edge of zero. At any other level of φ the organism sustains a measure of integration, and what we call ‘the organism’ is only this variable cohesiveness, or intensity: the real basis of Bataille’s ‘transcendence’; the mazefringe of death.
Isolation or transcendence (ψ) is an intensive quantity, since it lacks pre-given extensive co-ordinates. In other words, there is no logico-mathematical apparatus appropriate to the emergence of ψ, since ψ ‘is itself’ the basic measure of identifiability or equivalence. Communication (φ) escapes both identity and equivalence because it is indifferentiation or uninhibited flow; the intensive zero, energy-blank, silence, death. Only differentiation from φ (dφ=ψ) is able to function as a resource, storing energy, and precipitating compositions (forms, behaviours, signs). The intensive quantity ψ is therefore the basis and currency of extensive accumulation.
Bataille’s economics is based on the principle that extensive exchange (ψ1 → ψ2) is primitively accumulative. The extensive exchange is comprised of two intensive transitions: an expenditure (ψ → φ) and an acquisition (φ → ψ), with the latter always exceeding the requirement of replacement, so that ψ1 < ψ2. Bataille’s emphasis on this point leaves little room for misunderstanding: ‘the energy that the plant appropriates to its mode of life is superior to the energy strictly necessary to that mode of life’ [VII 466], ‘the appropriated energy produced by its life is superior to the energy strictly necessary to its life’ [VII 466]. ‘It is of the essence of life to produce more energy than that expended in order to live. In other words, the biochemical processes are able to be envisaged as accumulations and expenditures of energy: all accumulation requires an expense (functional energy, displacement, combat, work) but the latter is always inferior to the former’ [VII 473]. More technically: ψ1 → ψ2=dφ → d+nφ.
Marx entitled his basic project ‘the critique of political economy’, which is something similar to what some might now call a ‘double reading’ in that—interpreting the accounts that the bourgeoisie give of their economic regime—Marx found that the word ‘labour’ was being used in two different senses. On one hand it was being used to designate the value imparted by workers to the commodities they produce, and on the other hand, it was being used to designate a ‘cost of production’ or price of labour to an employer. With the ascent of the Ricardian school the tradition of political economy had reached broad agreement that the price of a commodity on the market depended upon the quantity of labour invested in its production, but if workers are being paid for their labour, which then adds to the value of the product, it is impossible to detect any opening for profit in the production and trading of goods. Marx’s basic insight was that being paid for one’s labour, and the value of labour, were not at all the same thing. He coined the term ‘labour-power’ [Arbeitskraft] for the object of transaction between worker and employer, and kept the word ‘labour’ [Arbeit] solely for the value produced in the commodity. Having thus distinguished the concepts of ‘labour’ and ‘labour-power’ the next step was to explore the possibility that labour-power might function as a commodity like any other, trading at a price set by the quantity of labour it had taken to produce. The difference between the capacity for work and the quantity of work necessary to reproduce that capacity would unlock the great mystery of the origin of profit. If labour were traded in an undistorted market with complete cynicism it should command a price exactly equal to the cost of its subsistence and reproduction at the minimal possible level of existence, just as any other commodity traded in such a market should tend towards a price approximating to the cost of the minimal quantity of labour time needed for its manufacture. Marx thus speculated that the average price of labour within the economy as a whole should remain broadly equivalent to the subsistence costs of human life. Thus: Value of labour—Price of labour=Profit
But why is it that labour-power comes to trade itself at a price barely adequate to its subsistence? There is a twofold answer to this, the first historical and the second systematic, although such separation is possible only as a theoretical abstraction. Both of these interlocking arguments are accounts of the excess of labour, or of the saturation of the labour market:
1. In the section of Capital entitled ‘The So-called Primitive Accumulation’ Marx attempts to grasp the inheritance of capital, and is led to examine a series of processes which are associated with the events in English history which are usually designated by the word ‘enclosure’. Broadly speaking the mass urbanization of the European peasantry, which separated larger and larger slices of the population from autonomous economic activity, was achieved by a more or less violent expulsion from the land:
The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour-market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, ‘everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.’ Although the royal power, itself a product of bourgeois development, in its strife after absolute sovereignty forcibly hastened on the dissolution of these bands of retainers, it was by no means the sole cause of it. In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal rights as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufacturers, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheepwalks was, therefore, its cry [Cap 672].
Urbanization is thus in one respect a negative phenomenon; a type of internal exile. In the language of liberal ideology the peasantry is thus ‘freed’ from its ties to agrarian production. Liberté!
2. The labour market is historically saturated by the expropriation of the peasantry, but it is also able to generate such an excess from out of an intrinsic dynamic. In other words, capital creates unemployment due to a basic tendency to overproduction. The pressure of competition forces capital to constantly decrease its costs by increasing the productivity of labour-power. In order to understand this process it is necessary to understand two crucial distinctions that are fundamental to Marx’s theory. Firstly, the distinction between ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’, which is the distinction between the utility of a product and its price. Every commodity must have both a use value and an exchange value, but there is only a very tenuous and indirect connection between these two aspects. An increase in productivity is a change in the ratio between these facets of the commodity, so that use values become cheaper, and labour power can be transformed into a progressively greater sum of utility. Marx seeks to demonstrate that this transformation is bound up with another, which has greater consequence to the functioning of the economy, and which is formulated by means of a distinction between ‘fixed capital’ and ‘variable capital’. Fixed capital is basically what the business world calls ‘plant’. It is the quantity of capital that must be spent on factors other than (direct) labour in order to employ labour productively. As these factors are consumed in the process of production their value is transferred to the product, and thus recovered upon the sale of the product, but they do not—in an undistorted market—yield any surplus or profit. Variable capital, on the other hand, is the quantity of capital spent on the labour consumed in the production process. It is capital functioning as the immediate utilization of labour power, or the extraction of surplus value. It is this part of capital, therefore, that generates profit. Marx calls the ratio of variable capital to fixed capital the organic composition of capital, and argues that the relative increase in use values, or improvements in productivity, are—given an undistorted labour market—associated with a relative increase in the proportion of fixed capital, and thus a decrease in profit.
The problems that have bedevilled Marxian theory can be crudely grouped into two types. Firstly, there is the empirical evidence of increasing metropolitan profit and wage rates, often somewhat hastily interpreted as a violation of Marx’s theory. In fact, the problem is a different though associated one: the absence of a free-market in labour. Put most simply, there has never been ‘capitalism’ as an achieved system, but only the tendency for increasing commodification, including variable degrees of labour commodification. There has always been a bureaucratic-cooperative element of political intervention in the development of bourgeois economies, restraining the more nihilistic potentialies of competition. The individualization of capital blocks that Marx thought would lead to a war of mutual annihilation has been replaced by systematic statesupported cartelling, completely distorting price structures in all industrial economies.
The second problem is also associated with a state-capital complex, and is that of ‘bureaucratic socialism’ or ‘red’ totalitarianism. The revolutions carried out in Marx’s name have not led to significant changes in the basic patterns of working life, except where a population was suffering from a surplus exploitation compounded out of colonialism and fascism, and this can be transformed into ‘normal’ exploitation, inefficiently supervised by an authoritarian state apparatus. Marxism—it is widely held— has failed in practice.
Both of these types of problem are irrelevant to the Marxism of Bataille, because they stem, respectively, from theoretical and practical economism; from the implicit assumption that socialism should be an enhanced system of production, that capitalism is too cynical, immoral, and wasteful, that revolution is a means to replace one economic order with a more efficient one, and that a socialist regime should administer the public accumulation of productive resources. For Bataille, on the contrary, ‘capital’ is not a cohesive or formalizable system, but the tyranny of good (the more or less thorough rationalization of consumption in the interests of accumulation), revolution is not a means but an absolute end, and society collapses towards post-bourgeois community not through growth, but in sacrificial festivity.
Beyond political economy there is general economy, and the basic thought at its heart is that of the absolute primacy of wastage, since ‘everything is rich which is to the measure of the universe’ [VII 23]. Bataille insists that all terrestrial economic systems are particular elements within a general energy system, founded upon the unilateral discharge of solar radiation9. The sun’s energy is squandered for nothing (=0), and the circulation of this energy within particular economies can only suspend its final resolution into useless wastage. 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—which Bataille calls ‘expenditure’ (dépense)—is the problem of economics, since on the level of the general energy system ‘resources’ are always in excess, and consumption is liable to relapse into a secondary (terrestrial) productivity, which Bataille calls ‘rational consumption’. The world is thus perpetually choked or poisoned by its own riches, stimulated to develop mechanisms for the elimination of excess: ‘it is not necessity but its contrary, “luxury”, which poses the fundamental problems of living matter and mankind’ [VII 21]. In order to solve the problem of excess it is necessary that consumption overspills its rational or reproductive form to achieve a condition of pure or unredeemed loss, passing over into sacrificial ecstasy or ‘sovereignty’.
Bataille interprets all natural and cultural development upon the earth to be sideeffects of the evolution of death, because it is only in death that life becomes an echo of the sun, realizing its inevitable destiny, which is pure loss. This basic conception founds a materialist theory of culture far freer of idealist residues than the representational accounts of the dominant Marxist and psychoanalytical traditions, since it does not depend upon the mediation of a metaphysically articulated subject for its integration into the economic substrate. Culture is immediately economic, not because it is traversed by ideological currents that a Cartesian pineal gland or dialectical miracle translates from intelligibility into praxis, but because it is the haunt of literary possibilities that constantly threaten to transform the energy expended in its inscription into an unredeemed negative at the level of production. Poetry, Bataille asserts, is a ‘holocaust of words’. A culture can never express or represent (serve) capital production, it can compromise itself in relation to capital only by abasing itself before the philistinism of the bougeoisie, whose ‘culture’ has no characteristics beyond those of abject restraint, and self-denigration. Capital is precisely and exhaustively the definitive anti-culture.
Capitalism, then, is (the projection of) the most extreme possible refusal of expenditure. Bataille accepts Weber’s conclusions concerning the relationship between the evolution of capital accumulation and the development of Protestantism, seeing the Reformation critique of Catholicism as essentially a critique of religion insofar as it ‘functions’ as a means of economic consumption, or as a drain for the excess of social production. The Protestant repudiation of indulgences—as well as its rejection of lavish cathedral building and the entire socio-economic apparatus allied to the doctrine of salvation through ‘works’—is the cultural precondition for the economy closing upon itself and taking its modern form. Bourgeois society is thus the first civilization to totally exclude expenditure in principle, opposed to the conspicuous extravagance of aristocracy and church, and replacing both with the rational or reproductive consumption of commodities. It is this constitutive principle of bourgeois economy that leads inevitably to chronic overproduction crisis, and its symptomatic redundancies of labour and capital. It is not that capital production ‘invents’ the crisis which comes to be named ‘market saturation’, it is rather that capital production is the systematic repudiation of overproduction as a problem. To acknowledge the necessity of a stringent (although perpetually displaced) limit to the absorption of surplus production is already to exceed the terms in which the bourgeoisie or administrative class can formulate its economic dilemmas. A capital economy is thus one that is regulated as if the problem of consumption could be derived in principle from that of production, so that it would always be determinable as an insufficiency of demand (during the period roughly between 1930 and 1980 this has typically led to quasi-Keynesian solutions nucleated upon US armaments spending). Bataille, in contrast, does not see a problem for production in the perpetual reproduction of excess, but rather, in a manner marking the most radical discontinuity in respect to classical political economy, sees production itself as intrinsically problematic precisely insofar as it succeeds.
by the book: The Thirst for Annihilation/Chapter 2: The curse of the sun by Nick Land
by Nick Land
Disorder always increases in a closed system (such as the universe), because nature is indifferent to her composition. The bedrock state of a system which is in conformity with the chance distribution of its elements has been called ‘entropy’, a term that summarizes the conclusions of Carnot, Clausius, and their successors concerning thermic engines and the science of heat5. With the concept of entropy everything changes. Natural processes are no longer eternal clockwork machines, they are either extinct (Wärmetod) or tendential. Mechanisms are subordinated to motors; to thermic difference, energy flux, reservoir, and sump. Order is an evanescent chance, a deviation from disorder, a disequilibrium. Negative disorder—negentropy—is an energetic resource, and chance is the potentiation of the power supply. Macht, puissance, as potential for the degradation of energy, as the fluidification of matter/energy, as the possibility of release towards the unregulated or anarchic abyss into which energy pours, as the death of God. Upstream and downstream; the reserve and its dissipation. Order is not law but power, and power is aberration. For Nietzsche, for Freud, and then for Bataille, this is the background against which desire is to be thought. The mega-motor.
There is no difference between desire and the sun: sexuality is not psychological but cos mo-illogical. ‘Sexual activity escapes at least during a flash from the bogging-down of energy, prolonging the movement of the sun’ [VII 11]. A cosmological theory of desire emerges from the ashes of physicalism. This is to presuppose, of course, that idealism, spiritualism, dialectical materialism (shoddy idealism), and similar alternatives have been discarded in a preliminary and rigorously atheological gesture. Libidinal materialism, or the theory of unconditional (non-teleological) desire, is nothing but a scorch-mark from the expository diagnosis of the physicalistic prejudice.
The basic problem with physicalistic thinking is easy to formulate; it remains implicitly theological. Regression to a first cause is an inescapable consequence of the physicalistic position, which thus remains bound to the old theological matrix, even after the throne has been evacuated by a tremulous deicide. The physicalistic contention is that matter receives its impulsion or determination from without; through the combination of an essential lawfulness that transcends the particular entity and the influence of external bodies or forces. Any ‘intrinsic’ process (such as decay) results from the expression of natural laws, whilst all extrinsic process results from the passive communication of an original cosmic fatality (probabilistic physics makes no essential difference here, since the mathematical—hence formal and extrinsic—determination of probability is no less rigorous than that of causal necessity). Physical matter is therefore unambiguously passive, exhausted by the dual characteristics of transmitting alien forces and decaying according to the universally legislated exigencies of its composition.
There is a sense in which scientific materialism has not yet begun, because it has not registered the distance between its representational object and the real matter/energy matrix, insofar as such materiality is irreducible in principle to the form of the concept.
This irrecoverable other of intellectual prehension can be designated as ‘chaos’ (order=0), or, to use a terminology in harmony with Boltzmann’s thermodynamics, as absolutely improbable negentropy. Lest it be thought that this is an irresponsible subphilosophical notion brought to scientific materialism from without, let me quote a profound fable narrated by Boltzmann (and attributed to his ‘old assistant, Dr Schuetz’) in his 1895 essay ‘On certain questions of the theory of gases’:
We assume that the whole universe is, and rests for ever, in thermal equilibrium. The probability that one (only one) part of the universe is in a certain state, is the smaller the further this state is from thermal equilibrium; but this probability is greater, the greater the universe is. If we assume the universe great enough we can make the probability of one relatively small part being in any given state (however far from the thermal equilibrium), as great as we please. We can also make the probability great that, though the whole universe is in thermal equilibrium, our world is in its present state [B III 543–4].
It should first be noted that the account Boltzmann gives here is quite possibly the only conceivable physicalistic atheism, at least, if the second law of thermodynamics is to be maintained. It suggests that the thermal disequilibrium which constitutes the energetic positivity (negentropy or ‘H-value’) of our region of the universe might be not only possible, but even probable, if the universe were large enough. Thus the reality of negentropy would be adequately explained probabilistically, without the need for theological postulates of any kind.
Boltzmann’s account introduces a conceptual differentiation between probable and improbable negentropy, the latter—were it to exist—posing an implicit problem for thermodynamics. It is, indeed, a notion of absolutely improbable negentropy that Boltzmann quite reasonably attributes to the critics of the second law, and his speculative cosmology is designed precisely to demonstrate the reducibility of all regional improbability or deviation to general probability or equilibrium (statistical lawfulness). General or absolute improbability would be the character of a universe whose enigmatic positivity was stastico-physically irresolvable. This is not to say that the empirical demonstration of absolutely improbable negentropy could ever disprove general statistical mechanics, since no level of improbability can be strictly intolerable to such a perspective. From the perspective of natural science the re-formulation of cosmology on the basis of a general chaotics could only be an arbitrary step, with a variable degree of probabilistic persuasiveness (something suspiciously akin to a religion).
In his argument with Zermelo, Boltzmann develops the ideas sketched in the text already cited, although the fundamental thought remains the same. High H-values or negentropies are probabilistic aberrations and do not, for this reason, violate any mechanical law. Boltzmann insists that ‘vanishingly few’ [verschwindend wenig] cases of high or ascending H-value are to be expected according to the second law, but that the multiplication of probability by time (‘t’) can justify any H-value if ‘t’ is given a high enough value. It is worth expanding upon the concept of time at work here, since what is at stake is the dynamic of permutation and not merely an abstract duration, whatever that might be. Even the heat-death condition of minimal H-values are still reservoirs of energy, even though this energy is fully degraded or entropic. Degraded energy has lost its potential to accomplish work, but nevertheless remains in a state of restless mutation. The fact that such mutation is, from a probabilistic perspective, highly unlikely to register a significant change in H-value, does not mean that it ceases to run through perpetual permutation. The time function thus generates a quantitatively definable permutational fecundity for a constant energy reservoir, i.e. the sum of cosmological permutation, or potential transformation of H-value, is equal to energy multiplied by time. The improbability of high H-values can be expressed as the expected proportion of such values within a range of permutations of a given magnitude.
Boltzmann writes: ‘In any case, one can arrive again at a large hump in the H-curve as long as the time of movement is extended enough, indeed, if this extension is protracted satisfactorily even the old condition must recur (and obviously in the mathematical sense this must occur infinitely often, given an infinitely long duration of movement)’ [B III 569].
It can be argued that when t=∞ any possible H-value becomes probable, and perhaps even necessary. Such an argument actually depends upon the source of transformation being what is called in statistical theory ‘ergodic’, which means that it is non-preferential in relation to possible random occurrences. It does not seem as if the cosmological rendering of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, for instance, is based upon an ergodic source. But there is no need to enter into questions about infinity in order to follow Boltzmann’s argument, since any finite H-value compatible with the physical limits of the universe becomes probable at a certain finite value ‘t’. Superficially it might seem as if even this formulation seems to imply a level of ergodism, since it is conceivable that impoverished cycles of mechanical repetition repeated indefinitely would allow a large ‘t’ value whilst excluding the possibility of high H-values. This argument, an extreme version of Poincaré’s7, is actually nonpertinent to Boltzmann’s position, since Boltzmann is seeking to explain the existence, and the possible repetition, of actual rather than hypothetical negentropy. More importantly, however, a narrowly mechanical—rather than probabilistic—explanation for the reproduction of negentropy would seem to directly violate the second law, which is based upon a rupturing of the reciprocity between ascending and descending H-values. In other words, the second law requires that it makes more sense to talk about high Hvalue humps than about low H-value troughs, since thermal equilibrium does not tend to another state.
Boltzmann’s own interpretation of this non-reciprocity takes the form of a fascinating and somewhat naturalized variant of Kantianism. He argues that the departure from troughs of thermal equilibrium occurs in periods of time so extended that they escape observational techniques and thus do not fulfill the epistemological conditions of being objects of possible experience. In his words: ‘the length of this period makes a mockery of all observability [Beobachtbarkeit]’ [B III 571]. And: ‘All objections raised against the mechanical appearance of nature are…objectless and rest upon errors’ [B III 576]. Speculation upon natural processes deviating from the entropic tendency are thus dialectical in a Kantian sense, whilst only those processes following the entropic tendency concern legitimate objects of possible experience. On a pedantic note, it seems to me that Boltzmann is rigorously entitled only to argue that it is ‘vanishingly improbable’ that a negentropic process could be observed.
For Kant’s timeless thing-in-itself Boltzmann substitutes vast stretches of time characterized by maximum entropy or thermal equilibrium, and thus by minimal Hvalues, whilst Kant’s phenomenon is transformed by Boltzmann in order to rest upon an energetic foundation of negentropy, thermal dis-equilibrium, or high H-values. Both the ‘phenomenal’ and ‘noumenal’ stretches of Boltzmann’s cosmological time are characterized by the conservation of energy and atomic particles, even in an equilibriated state. Time must be ejected into transcendence, and thought as a pure form organizing the permutational metamorphosis of elements, in order for the probabilistic emergence of negentropic humps to be possible. It is fundamental to Boltzmann’s argument that positive deviations in H-value are equally possible at any time, time being an indifferent grid.
Libidinal matter is that which resists a relation of reciprocal transcendence against time, and departs from the rigorous passivity of physical substance without recourse to aualistic, idealistic, or theistic conceptuality. It implies a process of mutation which is simultaneously devoid of agency and irreducible to the causal chain. This process has been designated in many ways. I shall follow Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud in provisionally entitling it ‘drive’ (Trieb). Drive is that which explains, rather than presupposing, the cause/effect couple of classical physics. It is the dynamic instituting of effectiveness, and is thus pro to-physical. This implies that drives are the irruptive dynamics of matter in advance of natural law. The ‘science’ of drives, which has been named ‘libidinal economy’, is thus foundational for physics, as Schopenhauer meticulously demonstrates.
A libidinal energetics is not a transformation of intentional theories of desire, of desire understood as lack, as transcendence, as dialectic. Such notions are best left to the theologians. It is, rather, a transformation of thermodynamics, or a struggle over the sense of ‘energy’. For it is in the field of energetic research that the resources for a materialist theory of desire have been slowly (and blindly) composed:
1 Chance. Entropy is the core of a probabilistic engine, the absence of law as an automatic drive. The compositions of energy are not determinations but differentiations, since all order flows from improbability. Thus a revolution in the conception of identities, now derived from chance as a function of differentiation, hence quantitative, non-absolute, impermanent. Energy pours downstream automatically, ‘guided’ only by chance, and this is even what ‘work’ now means (freed from its Hegelian pathos), a function of play, unbinding, becoming.
2 Tendency. The movement from the improbable to the probable is an automatic directionality; an impulsion. Entropy is not a telos, since it is not represented, intentionally motivating, or determinate. It nevertheless allows power, tension, and drive to be grasped as uni-directional, quantitative, and irresistible forces. Teleological schemes are no longer necessary to the understanding of tendential processes, and it is no longer necessary to be patient with them, they are superfluous.
3 Energy. Everywhere only a quantitative vocabulary. Fresh-air after two millennia of asphyxiating ontologies. Essences dissolve into impermanent configurations of energy. ‘Being’ is indistinguishable from its effectiveness as the unconscious motor of temporalization, permutational dynamism. The nature of the intelligible cosmos is energetic improbability, a differentiation from entropy.
4 Information. The laborious pieties of the Geisteswissenschaften; signs, thoughts, ideologies, cultures, dreams, all of these suddenly intelligible as natural forces, as negentropies. A whole series of pseudo-problems positively collapsed. What is the relation between mind and body? Is language natural or conventional? How does an idea correspond to an object? What articulates passion with conception? All signals are negentropies, and negentropy is an energetic tendency.
The thermospasm is reality as undilute chaos. It is where we all came from. The deathdrive is the longing to return there (‘it’ itself), just as salmon would return upstream to perish at the origin. Thermospasm is howl, annihilating intensity, a peak of improbability. Energetic matter has a tendency, a Todestrieb. The current scientific sense of this movement is a perpetual degradation of energy or dissipation of difference. Upstream is the reservoir of negentropy, uneven distribution, thermic disequilibrium. Downstream is Tohu Bohu, statistical disorder, indifference, Wärmetod. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that disorder must increase, that regional increases in negentropy still imply an aggregate increase in entropy. Life is able to deviate from death only because it also propagates it, and the propagation of disorder is always more successful than the deviation. Degradation ‘profits’ out of life. Any process of organization is necessarily aberrational within the general economy, a mere complexity or detour in the inexorable death-flow, a current in the informational motor, energy cascading downstream, dissipation. There are no closed systems, no stable codes, no recuperable origins. There is only the thermospasmic shock wave, tendential energy flux, degradation of energy. A receipt of information—of intensity—carried downstream.
Libidinal materialism (Nietzsche) is not, however, a thermodynamics. This is because it does not distinguish between power and energy, or between negentropy and energy. It no longer conceives the level of entropy as a predicate of any substantial or subsistent being. In contrast to the energy of physical thermodynamics, libidinal energy is chaotic, or pre-ontological. Thus Nietzsche’s devastating attacks of the notions of ‘being’, ‘thinginitself’, of a substratum separable from its effects, etc. Where thermodynamics begins with an ontology of energy, of particles (Boltzmann), of space/time, and then interprets distributions and entropy levels as attributes of energy, libidinal materialism accepts only chaos and composition. ‘Being’ as an effect of the composition of chaos, of the ‘approximation of a world of becoming to a world of being’ [N III 895]. With the libidinal reformulation of being as composition ‘one acquires degrees of being, one loses that which has being’ [N III 627]. The effect of ‘being’ is derivative from process, ‘because we have to be stable in our beliefs if we are to prosper, we have made the ‘real’ world a world not of change and becoming, but one of being’ [N III 556].
The great axes of Nietzsche’s thought trace out the space of a libidinal energetics. Firstly: a concerted questioning of the logicomathematical conception of the same, equal, or identical, die Gleichheit, which is dissolved into a general energetics of compositions; of types, varieties, species, regularities. The power to conserve, transmit, circulate, and enhance compositions, the power that is assimilated in the marking, reserving, and appropriating of compositions, and the power released in the disinhibition, dissipation, and Dionysian unleashing of compositions. Beyond essentializing philosophies lies art, as the irrepressible flux of compositions, the interchange between excitation and communication.
Secondly: a figure of eternal recurrence, stretched between a thermodynamic baseline (Boltzmann’s theory of eternal recurrence) and a libidinal summit, a theoretical machine for transmuting ontologico-scientific discoveries into excitations. First the scientific figure: recurrence as a theory of energetic forces and their permutation; chance, tendency, energy, and information. In the play of anarchic combinations and redistributions forces tend to the exhaustion of their reserve of possible states, inclining to the circle, a figure of affirmation and intoxication, as well as a teaching, message, or signal. A ‘sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving towards the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms towards the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then returning home to the simple out of this abundance…without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will towards itself—do you want a name for this world?’ [N III 917]. Then the libidinal peak; the recurrence of impetus in the ascent through compositional strata, always noch einmal, once again, and never ceiling, horizon, achieved essence: ‘would you be the ebb of this great flow’ [N II 279].
Thirdly: a general theory of hierarchies, of order as rank-order (composition). There are no longer any transcendental limits; Schopenhauer’s ‘grades of objectification’ are decapitated, thus depolarized, opened into intensive sequences in both directions. Kant is defeated, as transcendental/empirical difference is collapsed into the scales (but it takes a long time for such events to reach us). History returns (what could timelessness mean now?) ‘[T]o speak of oppositions, where there are only gradations and a multiplicitous delicacy of steps’ [N II 589].
Fourthly: a diagnosis of nihilism, of the hyperbolic of desire. Recurrence is the return of compositional impetus across the scales, the insatiability of creative drive. This is ‘Dionysian pessimism’; the recurrence of stimulus (pain) and the exultation of its overcoming. For the exhausted ones, the Schlechtweggekommenen, this is intolerable, for they are stricken with ‘[w]eariness, which would reach the end with one leap, with a death leap, a poor unknowing weariness, which would not will once more; it is that which created all gods and after-worlds’ [N II 298]. Plato first, then Christianity, feeding on human inertia like a monstrous leech, creating humanity (the terminal animal). Nihilism completes itself in principle at once, God is conceived; a final being, a cessation of becoming, an ultimate thing beyond which nothing can be desired.
Freud, too, is an energeticist (although reading Lacan and his semiological ilk one would never suspect it). He does not conceive desire as lack, representation, or intention, but as dissipative energetic flow, inhibited by the damming and channelling apparatus of the secondary process (domain of the reality principle). Pleasure does not correspond to the realization of a goal, it is rather that unpleasure is primary excitation or tension which is relieved by the equilibriating flux of sexual behaviour (there is no goal, only zero); ‘unpleasure corresponds to an increase in the quantity of excitation and pleasure to a diminution’ [F III 218]. This compulsion to zero is—notoriously—ambivalent in Freud’s text: ‘the mental apparatus endeavours to keep the quantity of excitation present in it as low as possible or at least to keep it constant’ [F III 219]. Far from being a discrediting confusion, however, such ambivalence is the exact symptom of rigorous adherence to the reality of desire; expressing the unilateral impact of zero within the order of identitarian representation.
Psychoanalysis, as the science of the unconscious, is born in the determination of that which suffers repression as the consequence of a transgression against the imperative of survival. It is the pursuit of this repressed threat to the ego which carries Freud along the profound arch of thought from sexuality to the death drive. At first (in the period up to the First World War) the attempt to explicitly formulate the site of the most irremediable collision between survival and desire leads Freud to his famous reading of the Oedipus myth and the sense of the Father’s law, since it is the competition with the Father— arising as a correlate of the infant’s incestual longing for the mother—that first brings the relation between desire and survival to a crisis. Later, in the formulation of the death drive, the sacrificial character of desire is thought even more immediately, so that desire is not merely integrated structurally with a threat to existence within the oedipal triangle, but is rather related to death by the intrinsic tendency of its own economy. The intensity of the affect is now thought as inherently oriented to its own extinction, as a differentiation from death or the inorganic that is from its beginning a compulsion to return. But despite recognizing that the conscious self is a modulation of the drives, so that all psychical energy stems from the unconscious (from which ego-energy is borrowed), Freud seems to remain committed to the right of the reality principle, and its representative the ego, and thus to accept a survival (or adaptation) imperative as the principle of therapeutic practice. It is because of this basic prejudice against the claims of desire that psychoanalysis has always had a tendency to degenerate into a technology of repression that subtilizes, and therefore reinforces, the authority of the ego. In the terms both of the reality principle and the conservative moment of psychoanalysis, desire is a negative pressure working against the conservation of life, a dangerous internal onslaught against the self, tending with inexorable force towards the immolation of the individual and his civilization.
Metapsychology is solar pyschology. At the heart of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle he sketches out his dazzling cosmic insight:
It would be in contradiction to the conservative nature of the drives if the goal of life were a state of things which had never yet been attained. On the contrary, it must be an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or another departed and to which it is striving to return by the mazings [Umwege] along which its development leads…For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, till decisive external influences altered in such a way as to make ever more complicated mazings [immer komplizierteren Umwegen] before reaching its aim of death. These mazings [Umwege] to death, faithfully kept to by the conservative drives, would thus present us today with the picture of the phenomena of life [F III 248].
Life is ejected from the energy-blank and smeared as a crust upon chaotic zero, a mould upon death. This crust is also a maze—a complex exit back to the energy base-line—and the complexity of the maze is life trying to escape from out of itself, being nothing but escape from itself, from which it tries to escape: maze-wanderer. That is to say, life is itself the maze of its route to death; a tangle of mazings [Umwege] which trace a unilateral deviation from blank. What is the source of the ‘decisive external influences’ that propel the mazings of life, if not the sun?
The most profound word to emerge from the military history of recent times is ‘overkill’; a term that registers something from the infernal core of desire. Superficially it is irrelevant whether one is killed by a slingshot or by a stupendous quantity of highexplosive, napalm, and white phosphorous, and in this sense overkill is merely an economic term signifying an unnecessary wastage of weaponry. Yet the Vietnam war—in whose scorched soil this word was germinated—was not merely the culmination of a series of military and industrial tendencies leading to the quantification of destructive power on a monetary basis, it was also a decisive point of intersection between pharmacology and the technology of violence. Whilst a systematic tendency to overkill meant that ordnance was wasted on the already charred and blasted corpses of the Vietnamese, a subterranean displacement of overkill meant that the demoralized soldiers of America’s conscript army were ‘wasted’ (‘blitzed’, ‘bombed-out’) on heroin, marijuana and LSD. This intersection implies (as can be traced by a systematic linguistic ambivalence) that the absolute lack of restraint—even according to the most cynical criteria—in the burning, dismemberment, and general obliteration of life, was the obscure heart of an introjected craving; of a desire that found its echo in the hyperbolic dimension of war.
Is it not obvious that the hyper-comprehensive annihilation so liberally distributed by the US war-machine throughout south-east Asia became a powerful (if displaced) object of Western envy? Almost everything that has happened in the mass domains of noninstitutional pharmacology, sexuality, and electric music in the wake of this conflict attests strongly to such a longing. What is desired is that one be ‘wiped out’. After the explicit emergence of an overkill craving, destruction can no longer be referred to any orthodox determination of the death drive (as Nirvana-principle), because death is only the base-line from which an exorbitantantly ‘masochistic’ demand departs. Death is to the thirst for overkill what survival is to a conventional notion of Thanatos: minimal satiation. Desiring to die, like desiring to breathe, is a hollow affirmation of the inevitable. It is only with overkill that desire distances itself from fate sufficiently to generate an intensive magnitude of excitation. Thus, in Freud’s energetic model of the nervous-system there are two economies that contribute to psychical excitation. There is the quantitatively stable energy reservoir deployed by the psyche in the various investments constituting its objects of love (including the ego), and there is the ‘general economy’ of traumatic fusion with alterity that floods the nervous-system with potentially catastrophic quantities of alien excitation. It was Freud’s recognition of this second economy, and its role in the genesis of 1914–18 war neuroses (stemming largely from the effects of continuous and overwhelming artillery barrages) that was fundamental to the discovery of the death-drive. If such a traumatic economy is readily susceptible to the thought of overkill, it is because trauma is consequential upon an open-ended series of magnitudes within which lethality can be located at an arbitrary degree.
It is because the second law of thermodynamics proclaims that entropy always increases in a closed system that life is only able to augment order locally, within an open system from which disorder can be ‘exported’. The space in which such localization takes place is not thematized by thermodynamic models, but treated as one of their presuppositions. It is implicitly conceived as homogeneous extension, extrinsic to the distributions which occupy it. Bataille, on the contrary, thinks space (rather than assuming it). The base topic associated with such thinking can be summarized under the title ‘labyrinth’, and will be investigated in some detail later in this book. For the moment, however, the issue is a more elementary one: that of theorizing the relation between the closed field of the cosmic energy reservoir (0), and the local pool of nonequilibrium economy, open to exchange.
by the book: The Thirst for Annihilation/Chapter 2: The curse of the sun by Nick Land
by Nick Land
It is the green parts of the plants of the solid earth and the seas which endlessly operate the appropriation of an important part of the sun’s luminous energy. It is in this way that light—the sun—produces us, animates us, and engenders our excess. This excess, this animation are the effect of the light (we are basically nothing but an effect of the sun) [VII 10]. The solar ray that we are recovers in the end its nature and the sense of the sun: it is necessary that it gives itself, loses itself without reckoning [VII 10].
The peoples of ancient Mexico united man with the glory of the universe: the sun was the fruit of a sacrificial madness…[VII 192].
There is no philosophical story more famous than that narrated in the Seventh Book of Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates tells Glaucon of a peculiar dream. It begins in the depths of a ‘sort of subterranean cavern’ [PCD 747], in which fettered humans are buried from the sun, their heads constrained, to prevent them seeing anything but shadows cast upon a wall by a fire. The ascent through various levels of illusion to the naked light of the sun is the most powerful myth of the philosophical project, but it is also the account of a political struggle, in which Socrates anticipates his death. The denizens of the cave violently defend their own benightedness, to such an extent that Socrates asks: ‘if it were possible to lay hands on and to kill the man who tried to release them and lead them up, would they not kill him?’ [PCD 749]. Glaucon immediately concurs with this suggestion. Such violence is not unilateral. The philosopher, after all, has an interest in the sun that is not purely a matter of knowledge. To have witnessed the sun is a gain and an entitlement; a supra-terrestrial invitation (however reluctantly accepted) to rule:
So our cities will be governed by us and you with waking minds, and not, as most cities now which are inhabited and ruled darkly as in a dream by men who fight one another for shadows and wrangle for office as if that were a great good, when the truth is that the city in which those who are to rule are least eager to hold office must needs be best administered and most free from dissension, and the state that gets the contrary type of ruler will be the opposite of this [PCD 752].
Light, desire, and politics are tangled together in this story; knotted in the darkness. For there is still something Promethean about Socrates; an attempt to extract power from the sun. (Bataille says: ‘The eagle is at one and the same time the animal of Zeus and that of Prometheus, which is to say that Prometheus is himself an eagle (Atheus-Prometheus), going to steal fire from heaven’ [II 40].)
To gaze upon the sun directly, without the intervention of screens, reflections, or metaphors—‘to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place’ [PCD 748]— has been the European aspiration most relentlessly harmonized with the valorization of truth. Any aspiration or wish is the reconstruction of a desire (drive) at the level of representation, but the longing for unimpeded vision of the sun is something more; a ideological consolidation of representation as such. The sun is the pure illumination that would be simultaneous with truth, the perfect solidarity of knowing with the real, the identity of exteriority and its manifestation. To contemplate the sun would be the definitive confirmation of enlightenment.
Gazing into the golden rage of the sun shreds vision into scraps of light and darkness. A white sun is congealed from patches of light, floating ephemerally at the edge of blindness. This is the illuminating sun, giving what we can keep, the sun whose outpourings are acquired by the body as nutrition, and by the eye as (assimilable) sensation. Plato’s sun is of this kind; a distilled sun, a sun which is the very essence of purity, the metaphor of beauty, truth, and goodness. Throughout the cold months, when nature seems to wither and retreat, one awaits the return of this sun in its full radiance. The bounty of the autumn seems to pay homage to it, as the ancients also did. Mixed with this nourishing radiance, as its very heart, is the other sun, the deeper one, dark and contagious, provoking a howl from Bataille: ‘the sun is black’ [III 75]. From this second sun—the sun of malediction—we receive not illumination but disease, for whatever it squanders on us we are fated to squander in turn. The sensations we drink from the black sun afflict us as ruinous passion, skewering our senses upon the drive to waste ourselves. If ‘in the final analysis the sun is the sole object of literary description’ [II 140] this is due less to its illuminative radiance than to its virulence, to the unassimilable ‘fact’ that ‘the sun is nothing but death’ [III 81]. How far from Socrates—and his hopes of gain—are Bataille’s words: ‘the sickness of being vomits a black sun of spittle’ [IV 15].
In order to succeed in describing the notion of the sun in the spirit of one who must necessarily emasculate it in consequence of the incapacity of the eyes, one must say that this sun has poetically the sense of mathematical serenity and the elevation of the spirit. In contrast if, despite everything, one fixes upon it with sufficient obstinacy, it supposes a certain madness and the notion changes its sense because, in the light, it is not production that appears, but refuse [le déchet], which is to say combustion, well enough expressed, psychologically, by the horror which is released from an incandescent arc-light [I 231].
Incandescence is not enlightening, but the indelicate philosophical instrument of ‘presence’ has atrophied our eyes to such an extent that the dense materiality of light scarcely impinges on our intelligence. Even Plato acknowledges that the impact of light is (at first) pain, because of ‘the dazzle and glitter of the light’ [PCD 748]. Phenomenology has systematically erased even this concession. Yet it is far from obvious why an absence/presence opposition should be thought the most appropriate grid for registering the impact of intense radiation. It is as if we were still ancient Hellenes, interpreting vision as an outward movement of perception, rather than as a subtilized retinal wounding, inflicted by exogenous energies.
Everything begins for us with the sun, because (we shall come to see) even the cavern, the labyrinth, has been spawned by it. In a sense the origin is light, but this must be thought carefully. Our bodies have sucked upon the sun long before we open our eyes, just as our eyes are congealed droplets of the sun before copulating with its outpourings. The flow of dependency is quite ‘clear’ (lethal):
‘The afflux of solar energy at a critical point of its consequences is humanity’ [VII 14]. The eye is not an origin, but an expenditure. The first text in the Oeuvres Complètes is Bataille’s earliest published book: The Story of the Eye. It first appeared—under the pseudonym of Lord Auch—in 1928, which roughly places it amongst a group of early writings including The Solar Anus (1931), Rotten Sun (1930, quoted above), and the posthumously published The Pineal Eye (manuscripts dated variously 1927 and 1931). The common theme of these writings is the submission of vision to a solar trajectory that escapes it, dashing representational discourse upon a darkness that is inextricable from its own historical aspiration.
The Story [Histoire] of the Eye is both the story and the history of the eye, as also The Pineal Eye is a fiction and a history. Every history is a story, which does not mean that the story escapes history, or is anything other than history consummating itself in a blindness which occupies the place of its proper representation. The Story of the Eye climaxes with the excision of a priest’s eye, which is ‘made to slip’ [glisser] into the vulva of the book’s ‘heroine’ Simone, once by her own hand, and once by that of Sir Edmond (an English roué). In this way the dark thirst which is the subterranean drive of the sun obliterates vision, drinking it down into the nocturnal labyrinth of the flesh.
Similarly, in The Pineal Eye, the opening of ‘an eye especially for the sun’— appropriate to its ferocious apex at noon—invites an obliteration; blinding and shattering descent. The truth of the sun at the peak of its prodigal glory is the necessity of useless waste, where the celestial and the base conspire in the eclipse of rational moderation. By concluding the movement of ascent that is synonymous with humanity, and providing vision with the verticality that is its due, the pineal eye crowns the epoch of reason; opening directly onto the heavens (where it is instantaneously enucleated by the deluge of searing filth which is the sun’s truth):
I represented the eye at the summit of the skull to myself as a horrible volcano in eruption, with exactly the murky and comic character which attaches to the rear and its excretions. But the eye is without doubt the symbol of the dazzling sun, and the one I imagined at the summit of my skull was necessarily inflamed, being dedicated to the contemplation of the sun at its maximum burst [éclat[II14].
The fecal eye of the sun is also torn from its volcanic entrails and the pain of a man who tears out his own eyes with his fingers is no more absurd than that anal setting of the sun [II 28].
The perfect identity between representation and its object—‘blind sun or blinding sun, it matters little’ [II 14]—is thought consistently in these early texts as the direct gaze; an Icarian collapse into the sun which consummates apprehension only by translating it into the register of the intolerable. In the copulation with the sun—which is no more a gratification than a representation—subject and object fuse at the level of their profound consistency, exhibiting (in blindness) that they were never what they were.
The unconscious—like time—is oblivious to contradiction, as Freud argues. There is only the primary process (Bataille’s sun), except from the optic of the secondary process (representation) which—at the level of the primary process—is still the primary process. This is a logically unmanageable dazzling, quite useless from the perspective of reason, which seeks to differentiate action on the basis of reality. This libidinal consistency, which is (must be) alogically the same as the sun, is the thread of Ariadne, tangled in the labyrinth of impure difference. At the beginning of The Solar Anus Bataille notes that:
Ever since phrases have circulated in brains absorbed in thought, a total identification has been produced, since each phrase connects one thing to another by means of copulas; and it would all be visibly connected if one could discover in a single glance the line, in all its entirety, left by Ariadne’s thread, leading thought through its own labyrinth [I 81].
All human endeavour is built upon the sun, in the same way that a dam is built upon a river, but that there could be a solar society in a stronger sense—a society whose gaze was fixed upon the death-core of the sun—seems at first to be an impossibility. Is it not the precise negation of sociality to respond to the ‘will for glory [that] exists in us which would that we live like suns, squandering our goods and our life’ [VII 193]? Without doubt any closed social system would obliterate itself if it migrated too far into the searing heart of its solar agitation, unpicking the primary repression of its foundation. It is nevertheless possible for a society to persist at the measure of the sun, on condition that a basic aggressivity displaces its sumptuary furore from itself, so that it washes against its neighbours as an incendiary rage. It is such a tendency that Bataille discovers in the civilization of the Aztecs, whose sacrificial order was perpetuated by means of military violence. In The Accursed Share—his great work of solar sociology—he remarks of the Aztecs that:
The priests killed their victims upon the top of pyramids. They laid them on a stone altar and stabbed them in the chest with an obsidian knife. They tore out the heart—still beating—and lifted it up to the sun. Most of the victims were prisoners of war, justifying the idea that wars were necessary to the life of the sun: wars having the sense of consumption, not that of conquest, and the Mexicans thought that, if they ceased, the sun would cease to blaze [VII 55].
What unfolds beneath Bataille’s scrutiny cannot be an apology for the Aztecs or even an explanation. What is at stake in his reading of their culture is an economic intimacy, or thread of solar complicity, the pursuit of genealogical lineages that weave all societies onto the savage root-stock of the stars. The raw energy that stabbed the Aztecs into their ferocities is also that which—regulated by the apparatus of an accumulative culture— drives Bataille in his researches. The energetic trajectory that transects and gnaws his entrails is the molten terrain of a dark communion, binding him to everything that has ever convulsed upon the Earth.
It is precisely the senseless horror of Aztec civilization that gives it a peculiar universality; expressing as it does the unavowable source of social impetus. ‘The sun itself was to their eyes the expression of sacrifice’ [VII 52], and their energies were dedicated to a carnage without purpose, whereby they realized the truth of the sun upon the earth. It seems to Western eyes as though their hunger for blood were indefensible, based upon ludicrous myths, and exemplifying at the extreme a human capacity to be perverted by untruth. If the culture of the Aztecs had been rooted in an arbitrary mythological vision such a reading might be sustained, but for Bataille the thirst for annihilation is the same as the sun. It is not a desire which man directs towards the sun, but the solar trajectory itself, the sun as the unconscious subject of terrestrial history. It is only because of this unsurpassable dominion of the sun that ‘[f]or the common and uncultivated consciousness the sun is the image of glory. The sun radiates: glory is represented as similarly luminous, and radiating’ [VII 189], such that ‘the analogy of a sacrificial death in the flames to the solar burst is the response of man to the splendour of the universe’ [VII 193], since ‘human sacrifice is the acute moment of a contest opposing to the real order and duration the movement of a violence without measure’ [VII 317].
Belonging alongside ‘sacrifice’ in Bataille’s work is the word ‘expenditure’, dépense. This word operates in a network of thought that he describes as general or solar economy: the economics of excess, outlined most fully in the same shaggy and beautiful ‘theoretical’ work—The Accursed Share—in which he writes: ‘the radiation of the sun is distinguished by its unilateral character: it loses itself without reckoning, without counterpart. Solar economy is founded upon this principle’ [VII 10]. It is because the sun squanders itself upon us without return that ‘The sum of energy produced is always superior to that which was necessary to its production’ [VII 9] since ‘we are ultimately nothing but an effect of the sun’ [VII 10]. Excess or surplus always precedes production, work, seriousness, exchange, and lack. Need is never given, it must be constructed out of luxuriance. The primordial task of life is not to produce or survive, but to consume the clogging floods of riches—of energy—pouring down upon it. He states this boldly in his magnificent line: ‘The world…is sick with wealth’ [VII 15]. Expenditure, or sacrificial consumption, is not an appeal, an exchange, or a negotiation, but an uninhibited wastage that returns energy to its solar trajectory, releasing it back into the movement of dissipation that the terrestrial system—culminating in restricted human economies— momentarily arrests. Voluptuary destruction is the only end of energy, a process of liquidation that can be suspended by the acumulative efforts whose zenith form is that of the capitalist bourgeoisie, but only for a while. For solar economy ‘[e]xcess is the incontestable point of departure’ [VII 12], and excess must, in the end, be spent.
The momentary refusal to participate in the uninhibited flow of luxuriance is the negative of sovereignty; a servile differance, postponement of the end. The burning passage of energetic dissipation is restrained in the interest of something that is taken to transcend it; a future time, a depredatory class, a moral goal… Energy is put into the service of the future. ‘The end of the employment of a tool always has the same sense as the employment of the tool: a utility is assigned to it in its turn—and so on. The stick digs the earth in order to ensure the growth of a plant, the plant is cultivated to be eaten, it is eaten to maintain the life of the one who cultivated it…The absurdity of an infinite recursion alone justifies the equivalent absurdity of a true end, which does not serve anything’ [VII 298]. *
One consequence of the Occidental obsession with transcendence, logicized negation, the purity of distinction, and with ‘truth’, is a physics that is forever pompously asserting that it is on the verge of completion. The contempt for reality manifested by such pronouncements is unfathomable. What kind of libidinal catastrophe must have occurred in order for a physicist to smile when he says that nature’s secrets are almost exhausted? If these comments were not such obvious examples of megalomaniac derangement, and thus themselves laughable, it would be impossible to imagine a more gruesome vision than that of the cosmos stretched out beneath the impertinently probing fingers of grinning apes. Yet if one looks for superficiality with sufficient brutal passion, when one is prepared to pay enough to systematically isolate it, it is scarcely surprising that one will find a little. This is certainly an achievement of sorts; one has found a region of stupidity, one has manipulated it, but this is all. Unfortunately, the delicacy to acknowledge this— as Newton so eloquently did when he famously compared science to beach-combing on the shore of an immeasurable ocean (= 0)—requires a certain minimum of taste, of noblesse.
Physicalistic science is a highly concrete, sophisticated, and relatively utile philosophy of inertia. Its domain extends to everything obedient to God (he is dead, yet the clay still trembles). Within this domain lie many tracts that have momentarily escaped cultivation; ‘facts of spirit’ for example, along with constellations of docility of all kinds, but these are not sites of resistance. Science is queen wherever there is legitimacy; perhaps terra firma as a whole belongs to her. No one would hastily dispute her rights, but the ocean is insurrection (and the land—it is whispered—floats).
Even after the infantile hyperbole of the scientific completion myth has been set aside, there is still a question concerning the success of science that remains untouched. It cannot be seriously doubted that philosophy has been damaged by science, for it has even come to anticipate its extinction. It has now reached the stage where it has lost all confidence in its power to know, where envy has totally replaced parental pride, and where the stylistic consequences of its bad conscience have devastated its discourse to the point of illegibility. For at least a century, and perhaps for two, the major effort of the philosophers has simply been to keep the scientists out. How much defensiveness, pathetic mimicry, crude self-deception, crypto-theological obscurantism, and intellectual poverty is marked by the name of their recent and morbid offspring die Geisteswissenschaften.
The first and most basic source of this generalized neurosis amongst the practitioners and dependents of philosophy is their incomprehension of quite how it was that ‘they’ gave birth to the sciences. They tend to think that they were always bad scientists, or at least, immature ones. ‘If only we had been better at maths’ they mutter under their breath, as they take a mournfully nostalgic pleasure in the fact that as calculators Newton and Leibniz still seemed to be ‘neck and neck’.
What is lost to such melancholy is the fact that philosophy does not relate to science as a prototype, but as a motor. It was the basic source of investigative libido before being supplanted by the arms industry, and if science has not yet been completely dissolved into a process of technical manufacture, the difference is only a flux of inexplict philosophy. For philosophy is a machine which transforms the prospect of thought into excitation; a generator. ‘Why is this so hard to see?’ one foolishly asks. The answer quickly dawns: the scholars.
Scholarship is the subordination of culture to the metrics of work. It tends inexorably to predictable forms of quantitative inflation; those that stem directly from an investment in relatively abstracted productivity. Scholars have an inordinate respect for long books, and have a terrible rancune against those that attempt to cheat on them. They cannot bear to imagine that short-cuts are possible, that specialism is not an inevitability, that learning need not be stoically endured. They cannot bear writers allegro, and when they read such texts—and even pretend to revere them—the result is (this is not a description without generosity) ‘unappetizing’. Scholars do not write to be read, but to be measured. They want it to be known that they have worked hard. Thus far has the ethic of industry come.
Curiosity has imperilled itself in its questioning, it has even harmed itself. That it has not traversed its history triumphantly is only one of the many certainties that it suffers from. It is all too obvious that the Russian roulette of the interrogative mode has led to its near extinction; maimed in the brain by the rigorous slug of the natural sciences. For the responses it has provoked have usually lacked even the bitter solace of aporia. To some the world is beginning to seem a crudely intelligible place; a desert of simplicity, dotted with the stripped bones of inquisitiveness.
What if curiosity was worth more than comprehension? This is not such an impossible thought to entertain. Nor is it unreasonable to ask after the necessity that has led the motor of thought to be subordinated to its consequences. Resolution could only be desirable if there existed an interest superseding thought. Otherwise it should be merely a means, the end of which is the promotion of enigma and confusion. That thought has to tolerate solutions is simply an unfortunate necessity. Perhaps not even that.
Curiosity is a desire; a dynamic impulse abolished by petrification. It would be an idiocy—although an all too familiar one—to try to preserve it in the formaldehyde of obscurantism and mystique. For an eternal mystery is as devastating to curiosity as any certainty could be. The ideology of thought’s exterminators is dogmatism, it scarcely matters of which kind.
It is not the ability to preserve riddles that has value, but the ability to engender them. Any text that persists as an acquisition after coming to a comfortable end has the character of a leech, nourishing itself on the blood of problematic, and returning only repulsive inertia. The fertility of a text, on the contrary, is its inachievement, its premature termination, its inconclusiveness. Such a text is always too brief, and instead of a draining anaesthetic attachment there is the sting.
This book is not of that kind, it slows Bataille down, driving his fleet madness into a swamp of metaphysics and pseudo-science. My refusal to surrender the sun to the denizens of observatories—and the unseemly tussle that results—makes my relation to Bataille somewhat problematic, wrecking large tracts of my text. My relation to scientific knowledge, on the other hand, is nothing less than a scandal.
What I offer is a web of half-choked ravings that vaunts its incompetence, exploiting the meticulous conceptual fabrications of positive knowledge as a resource for delirium, appealing only to the indolent, the maladapted, and the psychologically diseased. I would like to think that if due to some collective spiritual seism the natural sciences were to become strictly unintelligible to us, and were read instead as a poetics of the sacred, the consequence would resonate with the text that follows. At least disorder grows.
by the book: The Thirst for Annihilation/Chapter 2: The Curse of the Sun by Nick Land
Achim Szepanski - BAUDRILLARD: WHEN HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY BEGAN TO CIRCULATE LIKE OIL AND CAPITAL
Speculating Freedom: Addiction, Control and Rescriptive Subjectivity in the Work of William S. Burroughs
Joshua Carswell - EVALUATING DELEUZE’S “THE IMAGE OF THOUGHT” (1968) AS A PRECURSOR OF HYPERSTITION // PART 1
Joshua Carswell - Evaluating Deleuze’s “The Image of Thought” (1968) as a Precursor of Hyperstition // Part 2
Jose Rosales - ON THE END OF HISTORY & THE DEATH OF DESIRE (NOTES ON TIME AND NEGATIVITY IN BATAILLE’S ‘LETTRE Á X.’)
Jose Rosales - BERGSONIAN SCIENCE-FICTION: KODWO ESHUN, GILLES DELEUZE, & THINKING THE REALITY OF TIME
GILLES DELEUZE - Capitalism, flows, the decoding of flows, capitalism and schizophrenia, psychoanalysis, Spinoza.
Obsolete Capitalism - THE STRONG OF THE FUTURE. NIETZSCHE’S ACCELERATIONIST FRAGMENT IN DELEUZE AND GUATTARI’S ANTI-OEDIPUS
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 1)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 2)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 3)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 4)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 5)
Stephen Zepke - “THIS WORLD OF WILD PRODUCTION AND EXPLOSIVE DESIRE” – THE UNCONSCIOUS AND THE FUTURE IN FELIX GUATTARI
Steven Craig Hickman - David Roden and the Posthuman Dilemma: Anti-Essentialism and the Question of Humanity
Steven Craig Hickman - The Intelligence of Capital: The Collapse of Politics in Contemporary Society
Steven Craig Hickman - The Carnival of Globalisation: Hyperstition, Surveillance, and the Empire of Reason
Steven Craig Hickman - Shaviro On The Neoliberal Strategy: Transgression and Accelerationist Aesthetics
Steven Craig Hickman - Hyperstition: Technorevisionism – Influencing, Modifying and Updating Reality
Terence Blake - CONCEPTS OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (2)
Terence Blake - GUATTARI’S LINES OF FLIGHT (2): transversal vs transferential approaches to the reading contract
Himanshu Damle - Games and Virtual Environments: Playing in the Dark. Could These be Havens for Criminal Networks?
Himanshu Damle - Hegelian Marxism of Lukács: Philosophy as Systematization of Ideology and Politics as Manipulation of Ideology.