Hunching in the chaos of phenomena

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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.

Mark Fisher and the fading of the left

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Inevitably, on the occasion of Mark Fisher’s death, my attention has been drawn back to the seminal essay he wrote in 2013, ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’. Roundly mocked and ferociously denounced at the time it was written, what is striking now is the number of leftist commentators, like Sam Kriss, who have taken the opportunity to recant their previous opposition to Fisher’s analysis. There is little I can add directly to ‘Vampire Castle’. Fisher’s insights stand for themselves. Rather than monotonously repeating ‘I told you so’, I think it is worth investigating the reasons Fisher’s analysis is so much more acute today than it seemed in 2013.

The basic point that leftist political organisation among the middle class has proven peculiarly susceptible to authoritarianism was nothing new. With his usual pessimistic acuity, Adorno had already identified the totalitarian tendency of leftist political organisation in the West in Minima Moralia when he observed that ‘solidary itself has become sick’: ‘Solidarity is polarized into the desperate loyalty of those who have no way back, and virtual blackmail practised on those who want nothing to do with gaolers, nor to fall foul of thieves.’ As Adorno saw, this tendency expressed itself not just in the enormous hierarchies of really existing mass socialism, but in the petty authoritarianism of minor leftist parties and movements in the West. To some extent this exists in all political and social movements that find themselves excluded from the mainstream of contemporary society, whether on right or left, whether political parties or hippie communes. Fisher’s insight in ‘Vampire Castle’ was to grasp, before most others, the new and particularly pathological form that this authoritarianism had assumed in the core networks of the left today.

Mark Fisher, like many of those who graduated from the mad intensity of Warwick’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, was a man out of time. His analysis in 2013 seems bizarrely, retrochronically infected by the events of 2016. But there are, perhaps, rather worldly reasons for this. The pathological form of left-liberalism he identified in ‘Vampire Castle’ emerged from two destructive historical tendencies that have stepped into overdrive since 2015. The first of these is the constant retreat of the left—a story repeated since the advent of neoliberalism. From the 1980s on, the left has suffered such a relentless and unremitting series of defeats in the economy, in politics, and in wider society alike, that it has been forced out of necessity to transition from acting, in its bulk, as a watchfully progressive support for postwar welfarism, to becoming a forlorn rear-guard defence of the crumbling welfare state.

Secondly, with the successful universalisation of the neoliberal world order, the forces of popular democracy and technocapital have now begun seriously to erode the social and political foundations of liberalism itself. This has paradoxically forced a considerable section of middle-class liberal opinion into a ‘radical’ defensive posture that momentarily aligns it with the welfare conservatism characteristic of the left-wing mainstream—a conjuncture that became especially acute in 2016 in the opposition to Brexit and Trump, and that will no doubt intensify for the foreseeable future. Leftist politics has thus inevitably become powerfully infected by modern liberalism, with all the various individualist pathologies outlined in ‘Vampire Castle’. The intensifying awareness of this problem has triggered an escalating civil war within the left.

Neither of these historical tendencies—the left being forced into retreat, liberalism being forced towards the left—is strictly new. There are innumerable examples in modern history of liberalism and leftism being forced to cooperate, particularly against unambiguous atavisms like institutionalised sexism and racism. But the screaming urgency of the current political climate is unprecedented: liberalism finds itself under a sustained assault unseen since the 1930s at the same time that leftism teeters on the precipice of total collapse. The forcible collision this has occasioned between the two decaying forces has created new and often pathological political phenomena. In this context, the temporary success of radical figures like Corbyn and Sanders who have capitalised on the left-liberal marriage of inconvenience indicates not the advancing progress of the left but its mounting desperation. As the confusion and infighting that surrounds these two old men who represent the last great hope of Anglophone leftism amply demonstrates, they are not the rebirth of the left. They are its rigor mortis.

‘Intersectionality’ is the watchword of this coalition of the damned, designating more the absence of a theory of action than a particular type, a kind of Rousseauvian hope that a general will can constitute itself mathematically out of the conflicting interests of all the different groups who lay claim to some restitution of injustice. Ostensibly influenced by poststructuralism, as an impossible struggle against the existence of power itself it proves itself radically opposed to its theoretical progenitors. It has no successful political leaders because it is incapable of political praxis. It offers only conservative nostalgia for a now-impracticable welfare state through its leftist side and, as Fisher explained so clearly in ‘Vampire Castle’, the administration of guilt based on the exclusionary norms of bourgeois civility through its liberal side.

Solidarity itself is sick.

The future for progressive politics is darkening on every side. As the options for averting systemic crisis run out and globalisation kicks into reverse, hope recedes into the distance, becoming catastrophically remote. Divorced from any hope of political power, the ferocious internal criticism perfected by the left has combined grotesquely with an increasingly anachronistic liberal insistence on individuality, creating a monster that now runs rampant over the corpse of mainstream leftism as the iron dawn of cyberian politics shatters old forms of state organisation, kicking the ruling class into securitisation overdrive.

What, then, is left? The doomed struggle waged by leftists against neoliberalism is now fading into history, giving way to a far more symmetric, all-pervading, kaleidoscopic struggle between populists and managerial technocrats. The lightning bolts of 2016 threw disturbing flashes of light on this process that have now shocked many leftists out of their complacency, triggering, in part, the ongoing civil war now wracking the left. The sheer hysterically reactionary quality of the left-liberalism embodied in Twitterati Clintonism in the US and radical Remainism in the UK, its totalitarian view of its own allies, has now become frighteningly obvious. Now, as this left-liberal coalition works its way towards its inevitable collapse, the endlessly, monomaniacally repeated question over the shape of a world beyond capitalism must give way to a more fundamental one: what is the point of the left today?