Most stories have a kind of endoskeleton: a theme that lies inside them like bones. Sometimes it’s the same set of bones as another story: autopsy Lord of the Rings or Star Wars and you’ll find the skeleton of Campbell’s Heroic Journey. Autopsy a random romance novel from the 70s or 80s instead, the skeleton will probably be the Three R’s (Rebellion, Ruin, Redemption). Some stories are thin, their thematic content close to the skin, while others are fat: you have to dig deep through the narrative’s flesh and organs before you find it.
But then you have stories that have exoskeletons: their bones are on the outside. The theme clearly came first. There’s no need to autopsy such a body to discover its skeleton: it exists in plain view, and often it’s the only thing you can see.
Conan the Barbarian is an exoskeletal movie, virtually all theme and zero story. Every character is an archetype, every plot point is as predictable and portentous as the movement of the stars, and the symbolism is blunt and obvious – a Freudian psychoanalysist would suffer coronary thrombosis comparing swords to phalluses in this movie. It’s a stirring and powerful experience. Every scowl, drawn blade, and bombastic orchestral sting exists in service of myth. Conan the Barbarian is held up by mighty iron pillars of theme.
In ancient Hyboria, a tribe of Cimmerians is massacred by cultists of a dark snake god, and a blacksmith’s son is taken captive and sold into slavery. He grows to adulthood chained to a mill, revolving in endless circles. In an absurd touch, this turns him into a muscular titan. Real slaves look haggard, emaciated, and old before their time: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body was clearly wrought by gym workouts and steroids. But that doesn’t matter, because we see the thematic through-line. “Conan has performed great labors and become mighty, so he might escape and seek vengeance against Thulsa Doom.” That’s the important part. The theme holds veto power over logic and realism.
Conan the Barbarian is not faithful to any one Robert E Howard’s story (the Conan of this movie has more in common with Kull the Conqueror), but it’s faithful to Howard’s storytelling. It’s the sort of thing Howard would have written.
Howard, more so than the others of the “Weird Three” (Lovecraft and Smith) was indebted toward the lower side of pulp. He wrote action well, and his stories tend to rely on energy, heft, and speed for their impact – they’re as fast and streamlined as the mechanical rabbits greyhounds chase. Lovecraft and Smith would carefully construct a setting: Howard threw up plywood constructs and then smashed them beneath stampeding Hyborian horses. Here’s what I mean:
Chunder Shan, entering his chamber, closed the door and went to his table. There he took the letter he had been writing and tore it to bits. Scarcely had he finished when he heard something drop softly onto the parapet adjacent to the window. He looked up to see a figure loom briefly against the stars, and then a man dropped lightly into the room. The light glinted on a long sheen of steel in his hand.
‘Shhhh!’ he warned. ‘Don’t make a noise, or I’ll send the devil a henchman!’
The governor checked his motion toward the sword on the table. He was within reach of the yard-long Zhaibar knife that glittered in the intruder’s fist, and he knew the desperate quickness of a hillman.
The invader was a tall man, at once strong and supple. He was dressed like a hillman, but his dark features and blazing blue eyes did not match his garb. Chunder Shan had never seen a man like him; he was not an Easterner, but some barbarian from the West. But his aspect was as untamed and formidable as any of the hairy tribesmen who haunt the hills of Ghulistan.
‘You come like a thief in the night,’ commented the governor, recovering some of his composure, although he remembered that there was no guard within call. Still, the hillman could not know that.
‘I climbed a bastion,’ snarled the intruder. ‘A guard thrust his head over the battlement in time for me to rap it with my knife-hilt.’
‘You are Conan?’
‘Who else? You sent word into the hills that you wished for me to come and parley with you. Well, by Crom, I’ve come! Keep away from that table or I’ll gut you.’
The setting is ancient, but the prose is incongruously modern. The dialog reads like banter from a hardboiled detective novel, and it’s littered with anachronisms (“the devil”, “parley”) that don’t sit well in a tale of a vanished age.
For better or worse, this is something the movie adapts. Take away Conan’s mythic grandeur, and what’s left? “A rich man hires a tough to rescue his wayward daughter.” That’s a detective story. In fact, it’s the plot of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Everything beneath the exoskeleton is pure pulp.
Likewise, the movie captures Howard’s eclecticism of setting. Low-budget grindhouse films had a reputation for shooting with whatever props and costumes were available (leading to ridiculous movies about roller-blading samurai, etc) and Howard’s stories have a similar feel. In The People of the Black Circle (quoted above) we see a weird amalgamation of real-world cultures, and Conan likewise throws together Mongols, Vikings, Indians, and everything in between. As Zack Stenz once pointed out, the movie owes quite a lot to 70s California beach culture. The story, written another way, could be phrased as “a Venice Beach bodybuilder and his hapa buddy do drugs, get laid, and fight a cult that exploits hippies.” Gerry Lopez (Subotai) was a surfer friend of director John Milius. Most of the remaining cast are athletes.
Some roles are oddly cast, but the most important one – that of Conan – is dead on. No role has ever suited Arnold more, except perhaps the Terminator. His overwhelming physicality sells him as a mightly-thewed barbarian, and his uncertain, rumbling, learning-to-talk diction adds extra verisimilitude. When you listen to Arnold speak, you don’t doubt that you’re hearing the beginnings of human language.
There are depths to Conan, but the surface is pretty predictable. Its characters are so archetypal that they can’t do anything interesting or surprising. All of their motives are clearly spelled out, and the viewer is never in any doubt about what will happen – what must happen. Some movies are like taxis, slyly taking you on the scenic route through town if you’re not watching the meter. Conan is more like a train, pulling into the station, then leaving at a certain time on a fixed path. And since Conan is hardly the first film to adapt such mythic material, the train’s travelling down a route you’ve seen many times before.
But most people consider regularity in their chosen form of transportation to be a virtue, not a vice, and maybe they think the same about stories. For the rest of us, Conan the Barbarian’s the perfect movie to watch if you’re twelve, or want to remember what it was like to be twelve.
Eversion is a short horror platform game I downloaded in 2010.
That last part – me downloading it – is very important. From a certain reference frame (mine), the game did not exist until I downloaded it. So you could say I created the game by downloading it. No, don’t thank me. It was no trouble.
Eversion is a Mario clone with a unique concept: you can transport yourself between variations of the same stage that exist in different realities. Fluffy clouds in Dimension 1 might be weight-supporting platforms in Dimension 2, while a solid roof might be breakable tiles in Dimension 3.
Much of Eversion consists of toggling between various layers of reality, seeking the one that will allow you to advance. New dimensions become available as you progress deeper in the game, and sometimes the game forcibly dimension-shifts you no matter what you do.
In most games you move a character around a level. In Eversion you move a level around a character. It’s like the game exists in 3D space without having 3D graphics: you can traverse the game in four directions, plus go “inward” and “outward” into slightly-different universes.
As you might have guessed, the dimensions become increasingly dark; the music scarier, the monsters replaced with nastier versions of themselves, and so on.
Eversion proves a fact that’s already proven to hell and back: less is more with horror. Many of the mid-tier realities are creepy, with their slightly-off color schemes and slightly-cracked music. In the lowest dimension you’re picking up skull items while VERY SCARY horror music shrills in the background, and the result is more comical than frightening.
The production qualities are reasonable for a one-man game originally developed for a contest. The pixel art is okay, the music is really good, and the mechanics feel solid. The game’s not long – after memorizing the puzzles I could run through Eversion in about 30 minutes – and it has two endings, a happy and a sad one (perhaps sad and happy?). The least fun parts are the tiny hotspots that often have you running all over a level, jumping infuriatingly at air, trying to trigger the magic pixel.
Super Mario Bros is such a cliche that even its ripoffs have cliches. You’ve got the super-hard game that sadistically kills you every 2 seconds (and then taunts you with a kill-counter), a’la Syobon Action/Cat Mario. Then you have the parody or subversion, such as Super Hornio Brothers (or arguably Nintendo’s own Wario).
Eversion has elements of the latter, but it’s also that rarest of birds: a SMB copy that conceptually evolves Super Mario Bros in an interesting way, and thus deserves existence. You wouldn’t think improving on a 1985 platform game would be an achievement, but I’ll be damned if 90% of indie games can manage it.
You play as a flower. I never noticed I was a flower until I re-read the game’s description on Steam today – it was a detail I’d totally overlooked despite it being the central part of the game and the one thing I should have seen. I assumed I was a weird furry character. But then, how familiar are you with the details of your own body? Without looking, could you draw (or describe) your toes in such a way that they’re distinguishable from other toes? How much σεαυτόν do we γνῶθι?
Eversion was released for Windows in 2008, and has since been ported to Mac OS, Linux, and real life. Why real life? Because when I watched a Youtube playthrough of it to refresh my memory in 2021, it was nothing like I remembered. It’s possible that the graphics and sound were spruced up in a later version, but I think you’ll agree it’s more likely the world really works like the one in Eversion and I travelled to another dimension without realizing it.
“The future wants to steal your soul and vaporize it in nanotechnics” – “CyberGothic”
This philosophy book is intended for readers with four years of training in continental philosophy; I have 0 years and found it hard going. But then again, Land belongs in the company of Sam Harris, Slavoj Žižek, and Jordan Peterson – rogue thinkers who have amassed a following outside of academia. The institution finds him unacceptable. Unacceptable the way a tall poppy is to a lawnmower? As economist Garrett Jones observed, “read the room” is often an argument against the room.
Nick Land was a teacher at the University of Warwick, but he did not flourish beneath the scholar’s cope. He published just one book – 1992’s The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism – and his time as a lecturer was marked by vicious academic infighting. His interdisciplinary research group CCRU earned a reputation as a disruptive force, and his 1998 “resignation” might not have been entirely voluntary.
A divisive, polarizing figure, he provoked both adulation and execration. His jabs at the holy trinity of ‘continental philosophy’ – phenomenology, deconstruction, and critical theory – drew enmity from his more orthodox peers; and while his virulent anti-humanism affronted philanthropic conservatives, his swipes at institutionalized critique earned him the opprobrium of the academic Left. Marxists in particular were outraged by Land’s aggressive championing of the sociopathic heresy urging the ‘ever more uninhibited marketization of the processes that are tearing down the social field’ – the acceleration, rather than the critique, of capitalism’s disintegration of society. – Ray Brasser
Land cuts a disquieting and even apocalyptic figure – a human lightning rod, channeling power from the outer dark. Whether he’s is writing fiction or philosophy or indistinguishable meshings of the two, reading his prose can be unnerving experience – as though you’re inviting a shadow to hang over your head.
Fanged Noumena gathers up his writings from 1987 to 2007, a period that encompasses his academic career, mental breakdown, and move to Shanghai. In brief, Land is an accelerationist: a piece of jargon that means different things to different people.
It might reflect a goal to bring about a technological singularity. It might reflect a realization that this process has already started and is now too late to stop. Human bodies evolved over millions of years. Human society, over tens of thousands. But capitalism, catalyzed by technology, is faster than anything we’ve seen before. More importantly, it’s becoming faster faster than anything we’ve seen before. It’s picking up speed like a gale-force wind, howling and sucking things off the ground, causing humanity’s mooring lines to snap one by one. Some people want to slow down capitalism via things like government, centralization, and tradition. We were never made to go this fast. We have to slow down. Nick Land’s response is “cut the lines. Let’s ride.”
Accelerationism became a topic of some discussion in the late double zeroes. The notion of increasing speed was an appealing one. Silicon Valley buzzwords like “disruption” and “growth-hacking”, and Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous “Move fast and break things” quote are accelerationist in outlook. Then word began showing up in the manifestos of mass murderers. Since then accelerationism has become a shibboleth: having an interest in it makes you ideologically suspicious. The thing about accelerating is that it’s undefined what you’re accelerating toward. To some it’s a techno-singularity, to others it’s race war. Both Charles Manson and Elon Musk were (and are, respectively) in some sense accelerationists.
As is typical for Land, Fanged Noumena isn’t straight philosophy, and sometimes not even slant philosophy. “Narcissism and Dispersion” begins with a discussion of Heidegger’s analysis of George Trakl’s poems. “CyberGothic” is a reverie on noted philosophical figure William Gibson.
Other sections are brutal flamethrower attacks that leave huge swathes of mainstream philosophy blazing. “Making it with Death” features caustic tirades (“If Deleuze is to be salvaged from the inane liberal neo-Kantianism that counts as philosophy in France today…”) that couldn’t have earned Land many friends, and it might be intentional strategy that his point is sometimes obscure.
I’m not able to offer cogent analysis of anything here. There are some fictional prose pieces, such as Ballardian/Burroughsian pastiches . “KataqoniX” is a work of poetry seemingly created while watching Apocalypse Now on acid – it predates Kenji Siratori by years but treads over the same ground. There’s an interview with one “Daniel Charles Barker” who is almost certainly a nonexistent person, perhaps a collective identity for the CCRU.
“Delighted to Death” was particularly of interest, in the way it doesn’t just point to accelerationism’s future, but traces the movement’s opposite.
Cioran quotes Lao Tsu’s maxim ‘the intense life is contrary to the Tao’ , and compares the tranquility of the modest life with the thirst for annihilating ecstasy that has possessed the Western world. However, acknowledging the compulsion of his Occidental heritage, he remarks ‘I can pay homage to Lao Tsu a thousand times, but I am more likely to identify with an assassin’. Our culture, he argues, is essentially fanatical.
Is Taoism reversed accelerationism? And does it follow that Eastern philosophy is reversed western philosophy? Their slow to our fast? It might all be a game of speed, and identifying the plus and minus modifiers. One the main concepts in accelerationism (particularly the part of it Land dwells in) is “deterritorialization” – a windy word that basically means unwriting and uncodifying outdated concepts that exist to hold back the hand of history. Or something. As Land himself “explains”.
For accelerationism the crucial lesson was this: A negative feedback circuit – such as a steam-engine ‘governor’ or a thermostat – functions to keep some state of a system in the same place. Its product, in the language formulated by French philosophical cyberneticists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, is territorialization. Negative feedback stabilizes a process, by correcting drift, and thus inhibiting departure beyond a limited range. Dynamics are placed in the service of fixity – a higher-level stasis, or state. All equilibrium models of complex systems and processes are like this. To capture the contrary trend, characterized by self-reinforcing errancy, flight, or escape, D&G coin the inelegant but influential term deterritorialization. Deterritorialization is the only thing accelerationism has ever really talked about.
In socio-historical terms, the line of deterritorialization corresponds to uncompensated capitalism. The basic – and, of course, to some real highly consequential degree actually installed – schema is a positive feedback circuit, within which commercialization and industrialization mutually excite each other in a runaway process, from which modernity draws its gradient. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche were among those to capture important aspects of the trend. As the circuit is incrementally closed, or intensified, it exhibits ever greater autonomy, or automation. It becomes more tightly auto-productive (which is only what ‘positive feedback’ already says). Because it appeals to nothing beyond itself, it is inherently nihilistic. It has no conceivable meaning beside self-amplification. It grows in order to grow. Mankind is its temporary host, not its master. Its only purpose is itself.
I’m not sure how sensible this is. “Negative feedback circuits” aren’t necessarily inhibitory forces: they might hold one part of a system at stasis, but that might be necessary for another, larger part of the system to function. I am writing this using a computer that’s powered by electricity. The electricity first passes through a series of op-amps, rectifiers, and transformers to shape and regulate its power – ie, negative feedback processes. A PSU made of positive feedback voltage draws wouldn’t “exhibit ever greater autonomy”, it would instantly draw 220 volts from the wall and kill itself.
And it seems that much of Land’s “deterritorialization” requires reification of other sorts of territories. Capitalism might be an awesome disruptive force. However, it relies on laws, rules, concepts, codified language, etc. Are these not territories? What’s a dollar? How do you verify that I own this dollar? How do you stop me from spending my dollar twice? Unless you have fast and legible answers to these questions, the whole system falls down. A hundred thousand years ago, humans had absolute de-territorialization. It was an interesting period. But it wasn’t a technological singularity.
It’s possible these are stupid objections that would only be raised by a naïf. It cannot be emphasized enough that Fanged Noumena is not for the casual reader. Land will accuse something of being a “grotesque recapitulation of Kant’s compromise with onto-theological tradition” and it’s like a game of tennis where I can’t see the net – what compromise did Kant make? Where would I begin looking? Someone with more than a casual interest in philosophy would get more out of these essays.
Land would later become grouped into the “alt right” by journalists, but he doesn’t seem to take conservatism very seriously. He mocks religion and traditionalism frequently, and almost nothing in the book seems to fit into a left/right schema. Either his views changed, or he moderated them to avoid total censure at Warwick.
He opposes many fruits of the enlightenment – such as egalitarianism, democracy, and feminism and so forth – largely because he identifies them as the aforementioned “negative feedback”. He lives in a world where technology itself is an agent. Technology itself as the agent. Or rather, the everything. The entire system. The soul. Can we decode? What does it want? What is it propelling us toward, if anywhere? Wherein lies the aggregate trend? Is there a point to understanding accelerationism? By definition, it’s moving too fast to understand.
Whenever its name has been anything but a jest, philosophy has been haunted by a subterranean question: What if knowledge were a means to deepen unknowing? It is this thought alone that has differentiated it from the shallow things of the earth. Yet the glory and also the indignity of philosophy is to have sought the end of knowing, and no more. And what if empowerment was a means to deepen weakness? – “Shamanic Nietzsche”
What if indeed.
That would be a funny fate for humanity. Groping around in the dark, looking for a light…and finally everything becomes bright. It’s a train rushing down on us. Inescapable. Land wants to rip the bandaid off, and get it over with. If that’s what’s going to happen, then let’s let it happen. He wants those realities to become real.
The nice thing about accelerationism is that it doesn’t turn you into a drudge for any particular philosophy or social movement. I once read about an avowed communist who voted for George W Bush in the 2000 election. His reasoning? Bush would hasten the fall. That’s smart. Sociopathic, but smart. It’s also accelerationist.
Among the most personal pieces of writing in Fanged Noumena is “A Dirty Joke”. Nick Land relates a series of anecdotes that maybe give the strongest sense of where he’s coming from. The world of today isn’t much to write home about. Land’s allegiance is to the world of tomorrow. He wants the sky to go dark as soon as possible, by this or any means, and he doesn’t care what it takes to draw down the sun.