“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.
According to public opinion Richard Adams wrote two books, and you already know the first one. The Plague Dogs is fine: it’s audacious, tense, exciting, and has some good writing. It’s also not Watership Down. Reading this me gave me a greater appreciation for Adams’ earlier and more famous novel, because it demonstrates some of the ways Watership Down could have failed but didn’t.
Rowf and Snitter are dogs being subjected to unpleasant medical research at a government laboratory. After a fortuitous escape, they take refuge in the hills of England’s Lake District, preying on sheep to survive. Rowf is a weary, cynical mutt who’s given up. Snitter is a fox-terrier, half-insane from experimental brain surgery. Combine their parts and you would have a single healthy animal. Their prospects of survival aren’t good, but Snitter (who fills the role of messianic visionary that Fiver had in Watership Down) has a vague notion idea that he might have once had an owner. Or is this another ghost from the crack in his head?
That’s one part of the book. Another involves scientists trying to contain the story of the missing dogs, and instead throwing gasoline on the fire at every turn. Soon the dogs are believed to be carrying a strain of plague, and half of Cumbria is out hunting them with rifles.
The Plague Dogs is curiously indecisive, never very sure of what it’s doing. Simultaneously it’s a grim satire, anti-vivisection propaganda, a “naturist” ramble through rural England, and a thrilling animal adventure. The parts often work on their own but do not become a harmonious whole.
The satirical elements are the worst. The research lab Rowf and Snitter escape from is called Animal Research, Science and Experiments (ARSE), the dialog between government bureaucrats sounds like Yes, Minister, muckraking journalist Digby Driver makes Rita Skeeter seem like Truman Capote, there’s a fat magazine editor called Hogpenny because he’s fat, etc, etc.
The book’s as subtle as a gunshot to the face. The scientists at ARSE (which should be called Pawschwitz) are comically evil, torturing animals on behalf of makeup and cigarette companies. Rowf and Snitter receive identifying numbers at the lab: this was already troweling on the Holocaust subtext a bit thick, but Adams also can’t resist telling us that ARSE’s Dr Goodner used to be Dr Geutner and used to work at Buchenwald, at which point it stops being “subtext” and starts being “whacking the reader across the head”.
Digby Driver is implausibly lucky; always at the right place, always meeting the right person, always having them say the right thing. He’s also stupid: after unmasking Goodner he blackmails him for information, unaware that a Nazi war criminal on the British government payroll would be a far more outrageous story than two dogs running across the countryside.
I expect that most of The Plague Dogs’ readers wanted an adventure story about animals, but there’s little of Watership Down’s optimistic spirit. Adams’ rabbits were as capable and resourceful as Navy SEALs, and the book’s happy ending felt deserved, because Hazel and Bigwig and Fiver created it with their actions. Rowf and Snitter are just helpless mutts, relying on luck and a clever fox to survive. The Plague Dogs contains a lot of “the dogs are in trouble! What deus ex machina will save them this time?”
This might be The Plague Dogs’ biggest problem; the protagonists are animals yet the story is controlled by humans. Rowf and Snitter can’t even understand (let alone influence) what’s happening around them, confining them to a passive role in their own story: they’re not heroes, they’re victims. To advance the plot Adams has to constantly draw back the camera onto the human cast, almost to the point where the dogs feel as abandoned by the author as they were by their masters. The Plague Dogs ends up being a cynical 70s version of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, full of stinking yellow journalism and bureaucratic corruption…and then every few pages we get a scene of dogs huddling under a bush, doing nothing.
Watership Down had the right idea by only giving us the rabbits’ point of view. Humans existed, but they were supernatural forces akin to Greek titans: inexplicable and terrifying intruders into the rabbits’ world. We didn’t need scenes of Berkshire politicians taking bribes and authorizing a construction project in Sandleford. That would have just thrown the spotlight in too many different directions and onto too many characters, diffusing the light. The Plague Dogs commits exactly this error, and becomes so much the murkier for it.
It also lacks the largeness of its predecessor, its mythical heft. There’s no equivalent to the lapine language, no counterpart to the El-ahrairah stories. The only fantasies are the ones coming from Snitter’s damaged brain – and these aren’t inspiring, they’re sad, because we know what caused them. Adams’ frequent show-offy allusions to classical literature feel out of place. The Plague Dogs is no epic in the mold of Virgil and Homer: it’s a bleak book about a bleak world where heroes don’t exist.
In 1982 Martin Rosen “adapted” The Plague Dog as accurately as he could. I remember gray. Endless gray. It’s the most depressing film ever made about dogs: at least Old Yeller spent most of his film not being shot behind a barn.
On August 15, 1945, a Japanese schoolboy heard the voice of his god crackling from a transistor radio.
“We have ordered our government to communicate to the governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration…”
The Surrender Speech was the first time the Showa Emperor had ever spoken to the common people, and when young Kenzaburo Oe heard that voice it destroyed his faith. He’d thought that God-Emperor was… a god. He’d had dreams of a massive bird, soaring over Japan like a protecting shield, pinfeathers tearing through the sky like blades. To hear the Emperor speak in a man’s voice (which his schoolmates could mockingly imitate) took a hammer to his spirit.
Occupation soldiers rolled into Oe’s mountain village later that year. He expected the Americans to slaughter them all; instead they gave the villagers candy bars. This was cruel beyond words to Oe. He’d anticipated death and had instead received disillusion. Everyone had lied to him: the Emperor wasn’t a god, the Americans weren’t devils, and if he was to die for a noble cause, he would first have to discover one.
The inner turmoil of this moment colors much/all of Oe’s subsequent writing. He became the Patron Saint of the Crushed Hope. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is a collection of four novellas, grappling with a past that has proven to be unreliable.
“Aghwee the Sky Monster” is a surrealist tale similar to Gogol. The narrator becomes the friend of the mononymous “D”, a mad composer who is haunted by the ghost of his son Aghwee (who appears to him as “a fat baby in a white cotton nightgown, big as a kangaroo”). Only D can see this apparition, whom he conducts nonsensical conversations with.
Aghwee is obviously a delusion. Or is he? His existence controls and shapes D’s behavior in the same way a real baby would (for example, D will avoid dogs, because Aghwee is afraid of them), so does he exist in a phenomenological sense? The narrator probes D’s past, finds deep and unhealed wounds, and even hints of horror. It might well be D’s deserved fate to carry Aghwee with him eternally.
Shiiku, or “Prize Stock”, is about a black American pilot who crashes in a remote Japanese village. He is chained up and regarded with a mixture of awe and hillbilly racism by the villagers. I’ve seen some people online describe this story as “autobiographical”, although it couldn’t be – there were no black pilots in the Pacific Theater, and the Tuskegee Airmen served only in Europe. I think Oe’s offering some commentary on Japanese wartime propaganda, which would contrast enlightened Japan with the socially backward US. The US had consigned generations of blacks to slavery, a medieval institution that Japan had abolished centuries ago (Japan’s ~20 million Chinese and Javanese “forced laborers” were not regarded as slaves). The IJN also conducted so-called “Negro Propaganda Operations” – covert short-wave radio broadcasts attempting to recruit African Americans to the Axis cause. “Prize Stock” seems like an caustic derision of the idea of Japanese racial enlightenment: here as elsewhere, they were more like Americans than they thought.
“Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness” is about a fat Japanese father and his developmentally compromised son Eeyore (this is another repeated theme of Oe’s, whose own son has autism) who have several supernatural adventures. Maybe my least favorite story: it seems to repeat themes expressed more eloquently elsewhere.
The centerpiece is “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away”, a long and intricately constructed story that has to be read carefully: there are tricky perspective shifts. In short, it’s about a man who is dying in hospital of a “cancer” that is almost certainly imaginary. Descending into the story is descending into a tangled web, there’s narratives within narratives, lies within lies, houses built on quicksand, quicksand built on quicksand, etc.
Soon you get the idea: it’s like a Fellini movie, none of the facts in the story are important within themselves: they only matter insofar as they illuminate the mental landscape of a profoundly deluded man. He is arrogant and proud, self-pitying and defensive, and not particularly sympathetic. The madman in “Aghwee” is at least undergoing delusions as a form of penance. The hero of “The Day…” wears his insanity like protective armor. Apparently this is Oe’s veiled roman-à-clef of Yukio Mishima, author and poet turned right-wing nationalist who had committed seppuku two years previously, following a failed coup attempt.
So all four stories are pretty personal, but they’re much bigger than Oe. He shows the way a person can forcibly have the fabric of a nation woven into him, and the pain that results when that fabric is torn away. But what’s the past for, in the end? To contain an accurate record of what happened? Or to guide our behavior in the present? The two goals are seldom fully compatible.
It also asks questions such as “what’s a nation founded upon?” Sometimes, the answer is simply “nothing”. Take Algeria. Algeria doesn’t exist for any particular reason – it’s just there. But then you have the “proposition nation”, which is based (or believes itself based) upon an ideal or belief. I would say that the United States, Israel, and Showa-era Japan fall into this category.
Generally it’s bad to be a proposition nation, because you run the risk of your proposition being proven false. What happens then? What happens if you’re the Independent State of Phlogiston? The Republic of Timecube? You lie, I guess. You deceive your citizens, deceive yourself, because the only other course is ruin. Japan could have never have won the Second World War. But its soldiers in the field weren’t to know that, nor was Kenzaburo Oe. The nation just staggered blindly forward, ever deeper into the disaster, inflicting psychic trauma on its citizens that persists to the present day.
That’s tragic part about state-sponsored falsehoods: they continue in memory long after the state that created them fell to pieces. Japan spent decades downplaying or minimizing its war crimes: writing arrant falsehoods into its history books. Men who had produced mountains of bodies went unpunished and were reassimilated back into society. Oe’s childhood disillusionment could have been worse: he wasn’t told about things like Nanking, Unit 731, and comfort women. D is burdened by an imaginary baby. The protag of “The Day” is burdened by an imaginary cancer. Japan was burdened by an imaginary history. Even in the 70s, there were men like Mishima, who literally killed himself trying to bring the bad old days back.
Thanks to work like Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness Oe achieved fame and reknown, even within his own country. But it’s easier to forgive than to forget, and Oe has a long memory. In 1994, he was named to receive Japan’s Order of Culture. When he learned that he would receive the Order from the Emperor’s hand, he refused.