“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.
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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.
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A goliath of the 90s. There are days when I think you could watch Akira, Perfect Blue, Redline, this, and then stop watching anime.
But it’s flawed! Few things this excellent contain so many problems. NGE is tonally disjointed: the early “monster of the week” episodes look cheesy next to the later psychologically-driven episodes. The plot is always unclear and often incoherent, full of mystifying exposition dumps (ep20: “We can surmise that Shinji’s body lost its ego border, and he’s floating in the entry plug in quantum form.” […] “All of the substances which composed Shinji are still preserved in the plug, and what could be called his soul exists there as well. In fact, his self-image is pseudo-substantiating his plug suit.”) that create far more heat than light.
The story – to the degree it’s comprehensible – is riven with logical issues and internal contradictions. NGE has plot holes that simply can’t be closed no matter how hard you try. Fans have been analyzing this show for twenty five years without success: utterly basic questions such as “what’s an Angel?” and “what’s [character] trying to do?” are still unanswerable mysteries that spawn 10+ page forum flamewars in their wake, with users quarreling over the definition of some Japanese word or conducting exegesis of an offhand statement made by Hideaki Anno in a fanzine interview.
It’s a credit to NGE that fans are willing to take the effort. It’s an indictment that they need to. There simply aren’t any answers to a lot of NGE’s questions: just provisional rules that change from episode to episode, and from media to media. Given that SEELE knows the truth of Kaworu’s identity, why do they tell him what’s inside Terminal Dogma in ep24? Why does he then act surprised at what he finds there? Why can’t he sense Adam’s location, the way Gaghiel can? Given that the Spear of Longinus can instantly kill an Angel, why doesn’t Gendo use it until the Arael battle? Why is SEELE so angry about losing the Spear when they can create replicas? Which souls are in which Evas? Which numbers belong to which Angels? Does Eva-01 come from Adam or Lilith? What’s with Gendo’s habit of sending out Evas one at a time to fight an Angel, instead of all at once? How is the Third Impact triggered? Anime in general creates a lot of fanfic. NGE all but conscripts you to make fanfic, because the only way the show makes sense is if you rewrite it.
Most NGE fans would concede that the show looks smarter than it is. All the allusions to Christian mythology and Freudian theory mostly just turn out to be decorative wallpaper in the end, unrelated to the show’s main concerns. Why are Ritsuko Akagi’s computers named after the Biblical Magi? Because it sounds cool: there’s no deeper meaning and there’s almost never a deeper meaning. Westerners wear shirts with Kanji letters without caring what they mean, and NGE does the same for the Western intellectual canon. This isn’t always true (there’s some surprising philosophical acuity at times), but NGE occupies an uncanny valley of fun. It’s too hard for people who just want to watch giant robots fighting, but has too many generic seinen elements for fans of highbrow anime like Serial Experiments Lain.
But NGE does a lot of things right.
At the risk of sounding ten years old, the fight scenes look great. Maybe too great – they were fires that burned through Gainax’s modest budget, forcing a restructuring of the show’s final two episodes that remains controversial to this day. Basically, Anno’s big innovation was to fuse the then-stale mecha genre with biology. The “eva” mechas (piloted by children such as Shinji Ikari as humanity’s last line of defense against dimension-crossing “angels”) are cyborgs created from the flesh of Adam, the first being. It’s strange how this tiny detail completely fixes the fundamental problem with mecha genre: you’re watching hunks of metal punch each other, which gets dull. Eva’s battles are visceral and satisfying. When a punch lands on one of Hideaki Anno’s nightmarishly-designed monstrosities, you wince: you feel the flesh being pulverised. No matter how outlandish or surrealist NGE becomes, it remains a gruesome mortician’s table of a show: focused on bodies and mortality. Being an eighty-foot giant is not a reprieve from suffering: it just means you rot all the more.
The visual design of the Angels is superb, and their variety allows NGE to have its fingers in many pies. Fights involving bipedal Angels have a glorious city-smashing kaiju/tokusatsu character, the insectile Matarael evokes the “giant bug” movies of the 1950s, the aquatic Gaghliel echoes It Came from Beneath the Sea, the space-based Angels could be read as references to Leiji Matsumoto’s spacefaring adventures, and the bodyless Angels allow for tense Outer Limits-style conflicts that are fought in a psychological or emotional domain. The bizarre Leliel stands out as a wholly unique creation – I’ve never seen anything like it before, either within anime or outside it.
The editing is also excellent, full of slam-bang intercuts, and deliberately jarring transitions. The abrupt black title cards alone are a NGE trademark. Anno has a talent for overstimulating the senses that can best be described as Artaudian: happy music plays over tragic events, we sometimes view shots from deliberately awkward angles, or lose contact with a scene just as we’re on the verge of understanding it. It’s very hard to be bored while watching NGE. The material on the screen is as infuriating and fascinating as an optical illusion or a mirage.
And although NGE often looks smart when it’s not, it’s also looks dumb when it’s not, too. Newcomers to the show (who might have been recommended NGE as a thinking man’s anime) are often struck by how it clings to the genre’s basest cliches. Partly this is because NGE rebuilt the industry in its image (Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu were influential in establishing the kuudere and tsundere archetypes, respectively), but the more gratuitous fanservice moments were embarrassing even in 1995. The basic plot (a fourteen year old kid gets to save humanity in a giant robot while hot girls fight over him!) is wish fulfillment from a kid who gets bullied either too much or not nearly enough.
But as the show progresses, you soon see what Anno is doing: commenting on the cliches of mainstream anime. There’s playful subversion – the way the stale “harem” setup gets deep-sixed by an implied male-male relationship for Shinji, for example. The show as a whole reads almost like a knowing parody: it’s mocking itself, mocking you for buying into it. Most of the characters reach a fate that’s very out of line for their pre-set archetypical roles (the “mother figure” is quietly and cruelly destroyed, the tsundere’s psyche is snapped in half, etc), and this must have been intentional. Anno was gathering every up cliche and stereotype he could, and then throwing it all off a cliff.
He was right to. Anime is stylish and fun, but it can also be very limited. Its aesthetic choices will rise up around you like prison bars if you let it. Go on Crunchyroll and contemplate the sheer sameness of anime. How many shows are being made with exactly the same story? How many magical schoolgirls? How many harems? There are other ways of being, other stories to tell, and NGE embraces anime’s cliches just so it can destroy them publically in front of you, like the Inquisition burning heretics in an open village square.
Some have described NGE as “otaku-therapy“. I’m not sure that I’d go that far, but there’s a strong sense that Shinji is supposed to be you. NGE‘s final two episodes ram this home with startling force: how much of yourself will you give up to belong? Shinji is offered a choice to become part of a hivemind, or remain his own person. He makes his choice. Certain anime fans make theirs.
And NGE absolutely does have things to say about philosophy. It integrates Jungian theory (shadows, masks, the subconscious collective) and Schopenhauer (the Hedgehog’s Dilemma) into the plot in a way that makes sense and feels natural. It’s clearly made by someone intelligent – so how to explain the show’s sloppier plot elements? You’d almost wonder if NGE’s story even matters in the slightest, or if its plot is just more disposable-and-disposed-of cliche. By subjecting its plot to logic, we might be putting decorative furniture under a vice and hydraulic press. Yes, it shatters, but they were never the load-bearing part of the house.
In a breath, I would say that NGE entertains the casual viewer (“robots fighting each other, dude!”), disappoints the deep viewer (“the story doesn’t make sense!”), and entertains the really deep viewer (those who look past the story altogether, and view it as a kind of referendum on anime genre itself, as well as the toxic fanbase.) There’s a lot going on in NGE, and you have to look past battling robots to see it. It’s an anime almost impossible to stop thinking about. It raises issues that stick in your mind like particles of grit, refusing to leave. Grit is irritating and painful, but pearls are forged upon such.
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