Hunching in the chaos of phenomena


It is the year 1810, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has awoken from a bad dream. His hand still shaking, garbed in his nightgown as was his habit, he puts pen to paper, describing in a letter to his friend Windischmann what he has seen:

[A] descent into dark regions where nothing reveals itself to be fixed, definite, and certain, where glimmerings of light flash everywhere but, flanked by abysses, are rather darkened in their brightness and led astray by the environment, casting false reflections far more than illumination. Each beginning of every path breaks off again and runs into the indefinite, loses itself, and wrests us away from our purpose and direction. From my own experience I know this mood of the soul, or rather of reason, which arises when it has finally made its way with interest and hunches into a chaos of phenomena and, though inwardly sure of the goal, has not yet worked through them to clarity, and a detailed grasp of the whole.

Cut. The vulnerability of the transcendent is the age-old nightmare of philosophy in the West. If the world, as Plato held, is the shadow of Ideas, then why should the world not cast its own shadow back? Conversing with the Neoplatonists at the twilight of ancient paganism, those philosophers who held that the material world arises as emanations from the One, the Gnostics saw all too well what the Platonic system entailed. It was a portal between the transcendent and the transcended, between the material and the ideal. If the pure light of the One shone through in one direction, any number of horrors must be able to flow back in the other. Thus the Apocryphon of John: ‘When light mixed with darkness, it made the darkness shine. When darkness mixed with light, it dimmed the light and became neither light nor darkness…’

The same text gives the name of the sovereign of this realm of gloom: Yaldabaoth. For the Gnostics, the creation of Yaldabaoth solved the problem of the transcendent Janus gate; Yaldabaoth, assuming the position of the Platonic demiurge or material creator, served also as the vessel for the horrors of the material world, an insane and terrible demigod whose very insanity protected the One. In a passage that has survived only in fragments, the Gospel of Judas describes his creation:  ‘And look, from the cloud there appeared a [?] whose face flashed with fire and whose appearance was defiled with blood. His name was Nebro, which means “rebel”; others call him Yaldabaoth.’ The Apocryphon of John snidely identifies him with the God of the Israelites, noting, we may imagine, with an ironic smirk:

[Yaldabaoth] said to them: I am a jealous god and there is no other god beside me. … [But] if there were no other god, of whom would he be jealous?

This may seem like so much mysticism, and indeed the image of Yaldabaoth was lost at the hands of Christianity and the later advent of enlightened philosophy. Yet it is precisely this figure of Yaldabaoth that haunted Hegel, precisely this ‘darkness mixing with light’ that he described in his letter, the false god, lights ‘darkened in their brightness’ dissolving into glimmering formlessness. Yaldabaoth, explicitly, was the sovereign of Chaos. To dispel the gloom, Hegel constructs a golem of cold rationality. A famous footnote to the Philosophy of Right proclaims that the Idea, which is the State, ‘marches through history’. Its gait is the dialectic; it takes strides of negation and negation of negation, one foot in the particular, the other in the universal. We are led to believe that it is organic, smoothly balanced.

This, as Adorno pointed out in his essay on the ‘Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy’, is a lie. The golem is a monster, lumbering lopsidedly. Its particularity is shrivelled, its universality swollen to grotesque proportions. What is deviant, what is heterodox, what is unreasonable: all of these are crushed beneath its limp. And the darkness is infecting it. The State proclaims, ‘there is no other god besides me’, even as its face is defiled with blood and fire. We should not be surprised, despite liberal-Hegelian attempts to separate the two, that it was, historically, Hegelians who were embedded across the doctrinal spine of fascism: Giovanni Gentile, the official philosopher of Italian fascism, a celebrated Hegelian academic; the Kyoto School during the Pacific War, formulating the concept of the co-prosperity sphere on explicitly Hegelian lines; Carl Schmitt in Germany, defending the need for ‘qualitative totalitarianism’ by appeals to Hegelian political cosmos.

This monstrosity is not a triviality. It would be one thing if Hegel were simply another priest of the nineteenth-century bourgeois state, a purveyor of platitudes about civility. Instead, Hegel formulates the problem ‘ruthlessly’, neurotically, making the ‘antinomy more intelligible than ever before’. He points to something beyond himself. Adorno: ‘In unresolved opposition to the pathos of humanism, Hegel explicitly and implicitly orders human beings, as those who perform socially necessary labour, to subject themselves to an alien necessity. … Hegel disdains the illusion of freedom, the individual who, in the midst of universal unfreedom, behaves as though he were already free and universal.’

Hegel becomes Oedipus. Driven to despair by the onslaught of Yaldabaoth, he constructs as his defence the golem of the State-Idea. But it is precisely through this golem that the hitherto mythical Yaldabaoth enters into history; like Hegel himself, who was in the habit of wearing a nightgown over his formal clothes, the golem is dripping with infectious darkness. We may only wonder whether Negarestani’s recuperation of German Idealism will not perform the same function.

If Yaldabaoth is the figure of gloom, the infection of the pure light of the One, this says nothing of the purity of the darkness itself. Indeed, in the Gnostic universe, it is only light that needs to worry about a descent into the gloom. The cold darkness of nihil, by contrast, is deep and unending. Yaldabaoth’s realm is merely the portal: there are stranger things that lurk in the abysses, noumena, as Kant termed them, but noumena that move beneath their cloak of imperception. The defeat of Yaldabaoth comes not, as Hegel thought then, from the luminary State that dissolves the ‘chaos of phenomena’, the triumphant Idea. Yaldabaoth dies in the fangs of the noumena themselves.


Catastrophe and time


Each day, each hour, each minute, is becoming centuries, is becoming eternity…

Something has gone wrong with time.

It’s hardly a novel observation. Debates are raging across the Internet as to whether we’re in the ‘best timeline’ or the ‘darkest timeline’. Events that seemed unimaginable happen, rudely, then negate themselves, then negate their own negation—in months, weeks, days, minutes. History itself is going into reverse. No less than the New Yorker has questioned whether recent events suggest we may be living in a computer simulation—one where ‘everything has gone haywire’. Hegel gone mad.

There is, at least, a name for this pervasive temporal weirdness. Nick Land termed this condition—or something like it—‘templexity’. Templexity, in essence, is the inherent nemesis that responds continually to modernism’s hubristically escalating negentropic reversal of the laws of thermodynamics. It is the radical externality of its defiance of the Void. When humanity plays with time, templexity is the whirls and eddies of disorder we leave behind—in Land’s own Shanghai, the ‘strategic’ clash of the different futures and different historical epochs suspended kaleidoscopically across the city’s soaring vistas.

This example may seem tame enough. But in conditions of enormous excess—in conditions, that is, of catastrophe—the generation of templexity is taken to extremes. Time warps and frays, threatening to disintegrate entirely. The strict and comfortable causality of events seems to fall apart. They assume, as George Sansom observed of the last mad years of Japan before the Meiji Restoration, ‘the plausible inconsequence, the unearthly logic, of events in a dream’, seizing life in the immense whirlpool of a convulsive and perverse acceleration of history. The longue durée, which usually hides so modestly behind the veil of centuries to come, happens instead with pornographic obscenity before the eyes of the living.

The phenomenon goes right back to modernity’s blood-soaked political origins: shortly before the world-shaking insurrection of August 10, 1792 that ended the French monarchy, the militants of the Mauconseil proclaimed on August 4 that ‘each day, each hour, each minute, is becoming centuries, is becoming eternity’. Each instant, as the Mauconseil saw, assumes the gravity of a historical era. Time dilates, yet it also compresses: every moment drags on, yet looking back you can hardly believe how fast it’s all gone.

Now, it seems, we are experiencing the same extreme templexity. ‘President Trump’: the label still has the quality of a dream. Each day brings fantastical news. The Oscars were just the latest example. Above it all, long-held beliefs are being swept away, careening in a gathering tide that threatens ominously to overwhelm the postwar political order (let it return to its origins: may it rest in war).

We are living in catastrophic times. The reactions we observe may not be too different, in the end, from the ones that Sansom saw in Japan: millennialist fury, desperation, even—perversely—all-encompassing laughter. The consuming ironisation of life online might not be too distant from those ee ja nai ka carnivals where ordinary Japanese abandoned their social responsibilities and took to the streets in Dionysian merriments obscenely divorced from all political order. Collapse. Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether the Universe as such is a computer simulation, this question that alternately fascinates and terrifies people like Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky. Our own reality has, observably, become simulation enough regardless. What’s more, we know its alien operator all too well. Wizard, thy name is capital.

In a world consumed by the ever-automating flows of capital, everything has become unreal—or, as Baudrillard saw in The Perfect Crime, reality itself is a commodity. The accumulation of capital, indeed, indexes modernity’s reversal of time. The great and ongoing concentration of industry is precisely the engine that drives the reversal (so to speak) of thermodynamics: concentration of industry, concentration of capital, concentration of energy—negentropy. Cybernetic decentralisation has hardly changed this, feeding as it does on exponentially increasing inputs of energy, to the point that we demand, as Marinetti once did, the enslavement of the Sun itself.

Yet as the ur-catastrophe of the French Revolution also shows, there are other forces that lie in wait, wanting nothing more than to take the controls. If catastrophe, as I believe, is identical with excess, the question of contemporary catastrophe becomes: an excess of what? In 2017, it certainly isn’t an excess of capital we are dealing with: as I have commented before, the indices of globalization are declining, not rising, and the reign of Trump will intensify this trend. This is no classical capitalist crisis of overproduction.

There is another locus of excess. Modernity is a story not just of the amassing of capital, but the amassing of cybernetics, of social interconnectivity, which reached its first apogee in the monstrous ‘molten masses’ (Jan-Werner Müller) of the twentieth century whose relentless advance was only temporarily averted (or satisfied) by the elitist liberal institutions of the postwar era.

The technical specialists of macroeconomics worry over an underconsumption of products—tools like quantitative easing attempt to restore it to life—but there is one thing that we are consuming more and more, with little sign of reversal, in frenzy upon frenzy: information. For all the backwards-looking ressentiment that the political events of the last few years have encompassed, 2016 was also radically novel: it was the first year of cyberian politics, where the Internet transformed, partially and in fits and starts, from an instrument of existing political rationalities to a subjectivity of its own. So let that begin our new calendar.

The relentless compression of cybernetics has inaugurated a new form and new era of mass politics, and the catastrophe we are experiencing betokens its birth.

We can return to my implicit question at the start: what has gone wrong with time? Time, to be sure, has been ‘going wrong’ since the advent of capitalism. But the catastrophe we are now living through is only indirectly to be blamed on capital. Time is failing because cybernetics has taken the controls.

2016: The accession of the Internet


Europeans used to perish of diseases in the tropics, swathing their camps in mosquito nets as a defence against malaria. Now cyberpositive diseases are spreading strange tropics to the metropolis, and the screening systems are exploding out of control. The netting no longer filters out the invaders, they have learnt to infiltrate the networks. Now even the test programs are unreliable, the net itself is infected. (Sadie Plant and Nick Land)

2016 was a turning point. It marked the high tide of the most recent wave of globalisation as a material force. Geopolitically, it saw the conclusive failure of the attempt to reassert American hegemony on a liberal basis. But the lasting and historic significance of 2016 is that it saw, at last, the long-heralded emergence of the Internet as a social and political force. And everything began to fall apart.

The moment of hubristic and profoundly delusional technopolitical optimism that flourished at the opening of this decade has, in most places, given way to embarrassment and anger. The cyberpolitics that Obama supposedly deployed so effectively has proven itself to be only a throwback to an earlier age. Only the least timely and the most disingenuous commentators still maintain the fiction that the Internet is a force for the universal unfolding of liberalism—perhaps because the reality is too disturbing for them to contemplate.

Experience has now shown that cybertechnology insists on its autonomy, defying attempts to impose political control to one end or another from above, while itself decomposing and reaggregating the characteristics of human existence from below. But this experience is provoking contradictory reactions: denial, petulance, blissful ignorance, only very rarely acceptance.

Nevertheless it persists, and things continue to fall apart. The mechanical reproduction of ideology through the domineering apparatus of the culture industry, where each deviation could be checked and pathologised by the consensus of a uniform media and the birthing of new sociopolitical movements required significant material investment, is giving way to an age of cybernetic reproduction in which ideology regenerates and mutates endlessly, refracting through limitless multiplicities on platforms of free and instantaneous communication, through which new movements are daily, hourly, conjured and dismissed glitteringly from existence.

Politics modernizes, upgrades paranoia, and tries to get a grip.

The liberals are turning up the pressure, displacing all political argument to the level of the individual. As old political distinctions descend into irrelevance, forced to rearrange themselves around the abomination of Internet-populism which itself struggles against its own perpetual disintegration, the liberal political imaginary transitions into the paranoiac administration of guilt.

Dimly, there is a dawning recognition that something has gone badly wrong. The circuit of virtue connecting the generation of value and ideology in academia, the healthy competition of the democratic political arena, and the maintenance of liberal policy has fallen apart. ‘The people have had enough of experts’: experts have had enough of the people.

All the while, the ground is falling away. In cyberpolitics, the process of Kantian individualisation is carried to its logical, self-annihilating Nietzschean conclusion as the rational individual itself is destroyed, disintegrating inevitably into online refractions and permanent irrationality. Authenticity is being swept away, replaced by all-consuming technicity. Without its object of concern, the politics of the individual becomes pathetic and impotent, even as it grows fiercer and fiercer in its rhetoric.

Unaccustomed to anything else, the intellectual ancien régime adheres ever more closely to its outdated analysis, misinterpreting the phenomena of the new age through the lens of the old. ‘Trump became president because he manipulated the media’ (as if the 2010s were the 1910s and media manipulation were a novel phenomenon). But the ‘mass media’ are dying, ceding way to mass intercommunication.

Monsters are emerging as the material circuit of capital grinds to a halt and cyberpolitics runs away ahead of it.

The lesson of this year was that cyberpolitics is not a force of globalisation. It is the end of the human world itself.