The curse of the sun (Part 2)
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
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