Paintings are dead. The oleaginous purples of baroque: dead. The petal-like brushstrokes of impressionism: dead. The apotheotic ecstasies of romanticism: dead beyond dead. Even when they evoke or suggest life they aren’t life, and if you try to breathe the unending skyful of air in Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea you will suffocate and join it in death.
Airless Spaces (from 1998) is about that kind of dying: trying to sustain yourself on artifice and illusion. It’s short – about a hundred and fifty pages – and very readable, containing fifty vignettes drawn from the author’s experiences in mental hospitals.
Shulamith bath Shmuel ben Ari Feuerstein was an early radical feminist. Her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex launched her to fame, and it seemed like she was set for the same sort of life Greer, Friedan, and Steinem had – forty or fifty years of teaching, consciousness-raising, fighting the patriarchy a little, fighting other feminists a lot, and the occasional bra-burning publicity stunt to remain in the public eye.
Incredibly, the book marked the end of Shulie’s career. She disappeared from public view in 1971 – to pursue a career as a painter, she said. In actuality, a shadow had fallen on her, and her struggles with schizophrenia (worsened by the death of her father and the apparent suicide of her brother) caused her to be repeatedly institutionalized. Although I don’t think her name even appears in the book, Airless Space is her account of those 28 missing years.
It describes places that aren’t real places, relationships that aren’t real relationships, and words that have no meaning. Like paintings, these artifices vary in their details. Some are crude and clumsy. Others are painted with a maestro’s touch, and cleverly deceive you into thinking they’re real. But they’re all pitiful facsimiles of the real thing, and none of them are of much use at sustaining life. Like eating an apple made of wax.
There’s no theory or politicizing, instead there’s endless and fascinating detail about daily life in the land of the mad. Time is absent from the book (most stories could take place anywhere from 1971 to 1998, with only a few being dated by details like VCR and email), yet also omnipresent. The hours crawl like a broken-backed cockroach. Eventually you stop even feeling bored: you just stare slackmouthed at the clock as it sweeps from breakfast time to lunch time to dinner time to bed time.
Society doesn’t deal with insanity that well in 1998 or any other year. In most of the stories Shulie could be at a prison; she encounters rigid and unbending bureaucracy, orderlies who apparently moonlight as nightclub bouncers, and institution-fostered drug dependencies. The chapter titles alone are grim. The Forced Shower. The Prayer Contest. Bedtime is the Best Time of the Day. Bloodwork. The Sleep Room. Incontinence. The Jump Suit. Hating the Hospital. Suicides I Have Known.
There’s a section simply titled losers. The term sounds sophomorically cruel, like what a bully would say as he gives you a bogwashing, but it’s an accurate description. The people Shulie writes about have lost. There’s no other way to put it. You feel pity reading about some of them.
- Ana, a vain woman who has managed to sneak in a stylish white jogging suit. She wears it along with a face of stolen makeup, lording over the other patients “like a queen in haute couture”. Inside, she’s unimaginably glamorous. When she’s released, she looks exactly like what she is: a person sprung from a mental ward.
- Jane, a “small and ugly” punk rocker who spends her entire day on the phone, trying to get out. One morning at breakfast, each patient receives a banana, and Shulie is missed. She sees Jane not eating hers, asks if she can have it. Jane has an explosive psychotic episode, spitting in Shulie’s face while screaming an “incomprehensible torrent of abuse”. She spents the rest of her stay trying to have Shulie arrested.
- Ellin, an intelligent, cheerful, and apparently sane woman committed for hypochondria. None of the doctors believe her to be sick. Her brother suing for ownership of her property, on the basis that she’s crazy (as proven by the fact she’s in an institution). She’s spending all of her savings on lawyers to fight him and will soon be penniless. Later, Shulie learns that the brother won, and Ellin was evicted from her own apartment. She never learns what happened to her after that.
- An anonymous woman (who might be Shulie herself) hears about someone dying one day, and wishes she could trade bodies with that person. They would get a healthy body with many more years of life. She would get a dead one with no more years. This seems optimal for both of them.
- Stanley, an old friend of Shulie. He’s perennially broke ex-academic who has spent nearly every spare moment of the past eight years working on a thousand-page long magnum opus on philosophy. He submits it to a press owned by a “prominent former radical”. It’s rejected, on the basis that it’s unreadable and also they don’t do philosophy. He has no idea what else to do with it.
And so on. Along the way, Shulie gives advice on how to get out of a psych ward. Behave. Attend all activities religiously. But don’t allow yourself to become invisible, or you’ll be forgotten. Rock the boat in small ways. Stand out. Wear an interesting item of clothing if allowed. Put effort into your appearance. Pace the halls, so people can’t escape the fact that you’re there. Learn the names of all the doctors and orderlies and have interactions with them – even if it’s just saying “hello” in the hallway, and even if you’re ignored. The basic idea is to be present. There’s a world of difference between a person in an institution (who doesn’t belong), and an institutionalized person (who belongs very well), and your job is clearly be the former, so you can hopefully get out.
But out is in misspelled for a lot of people. Another sad aspect of Airless Space is that many of these people will live awful lives no matter where they are: they’re poor, crippled, will never be “better” in any meaningful sense, and their insanity is a response to circumstance (“Just because you’re paranoid, does not mean they’re not out to get you”). I’m struck by the story of Mrs Brophy, who views her prolongued hospital stays as a vacation from the nerve-shredding job of caring for her large household with many children. Another repeat in-and-outer adapts to the point of being nonfunctional in the real world. “Every time she went in, especially after the first, she felt submerged, as if someone were holding her under water for months. When she came out she was fat, helpless, unable to make the smallest decision, speechless, and thoroughly programmed by the rigid hospital routine, so that even her stomach grumbled on time, at precisely 5 p.m.”
There are some humorous touches. There’s a plane trip where Shulie complains about the in-flight movie “Melanie“, which she calls a “pre-adolescent fantasty with a decidedly lesbian tinge”. Shulie should have been a film critic. There’s also an interesting meeting where she meets none other than Valerie Solanas, whose later life makes Shulie’s look like a success story. Solanas has read The Dialectic of Sex and hates it, and starts arguing with Shulie about it. The low comedy of two destitute madwomen debating the theory of a world that rejected them decades ago isn’t lost on her.
In short, very interesting, very sad, very effective. This ain’t it, chief became Twitter’s favorite put-down for a while, and that’s what this book is: this ain’t it fifty times in a row. I don’t know that I’ll ever re-read Airless Spaces, but it made an impression. The book opens on one of its most memorable image: you’re aboard a sinking ship…but that ship is inside the Bemuda Triangle. If you’re dying in a place that’s false and unreal, are you really dying? Whatever the answer, you’re clearly not living.
“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. You already know the first one. The Plague Dogs is fine: it’s audacious, tense, exciting, and well-written. But it’s not Watership Down, and reading it gave me a greater appreciation for Adams’ earlier book, because it demonstrates some of the ways Watership Down could have gone wrong.
Rowf and Snitter are dogs subjected to horrible medical research at a government laboratory. A careless janitor allows their escape, and 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 odds of survival aren’t good, but Snitter (who fills the visionary role Fiver had in Watership Down) has a vague idea that he might have once had an owner. Is this true, or a ghost from the crack in his head?
That’s part of the book; another involves the scientists at the laboratory 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. All at once 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 don’t 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, and there’s a fat Fleet Street magazine editor called Hogpenny because he’s fat, etc.
The book’s as subtle as a gunshot to the face. The scientists at ARSE are almost comically evil, torturing animals on behalf of makeup and cigarette companies. I’m barely joking when I call the place “Pawschwitz”. 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 on the lab escape, even though a Nazi war criminal on the government payroll would be a far greater scandal than two dogs running across the countryside.
I expect that most of The Plague Dogs’ readers wanted an uplifting 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 through 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, deus ex machina!”
This might be The Plague Dogs’ biggest problem; the protagonists are animals but the story is controlled by humans. Rowf and Snitter can’t even understand (let alone influence) what’s happening around them, and they have a passive role in their adventure: 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 Snitter was by his master. The Plague Dogs ends up being a cynical, dark 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.
Watership Down had the right idea by only giving us the rabbits’ point of view. Humans existed only as 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 seem 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.