Salticidae Philosophiae is a series of abstracts, commentaries, and reviews on philosophical articles and books.

Eugene Thacker suggests that we look to the genre of horror as offering a way of thinking about the unthinkable world. To confront this idea is to confront the limit of our ability to understand the world in which we live – a central motif of the horror genre.

Highlights

  • There is a limit to our ability to comprehend the world.
  • The genre of supernatural horror may be the most effective means for exploring and discussing this limitation.
  • There may be order to the universe but it is indifferent to us and we cannot be fully aware of it.
  • We should make a distinction between the parts of the world that are knowable by us and the parts of the world that we cannot uncover.
  • Extinction means the nonexistence of thought and the end of experience.
  • If we are going to talk about the parts of the world that we cannot uncover, then we can only do so by describing what these parts are not.
  • We should, at last, recognize that there is no clear distinction between ourselves and the world; we are but a part of the latter.

New or uncommon terminology

  • Thacker describes three typical modes of understanding the manifested world: the mythological, which acknowledges the world as being not totally under human control, but anthropomorphizes it; the theological, which likewise personifies the world and understands it through the framework of sin, debt, and redemption; and the existential, which presently tends to ground itself on the fruits of science and constricts the world to the experience of the individual.
  • The world, or perhaps the cosmos, is likewise divided into three parts: the world-for-us, which is the world as we directly interact with it, which we interpret and to which we grant meaning, and which is defined chiefly in in terms of our relationship with it; the world-in-itself, which is described in occasionally contradictory terms but coexists with the world-for-us, resists or ignores our attempts to mold it, and is chiefly accessed (and then transmuted into the world-for-us, if possible) through scientific inquiry and technological intervention; and the world-without-us, which does not and cannot coexist with the world-for-us because it is the subtraction of the human element from the world, and is therefore (at present) spectral and speculative. Thacker also refers to these as the World, the Earth, and the Planet, respectively.
  • Cosmic pessimism is the thought of the world-without-us or of the Planet: the thought of a cosmos that is absolutely unhuman and indifferent to our existence and our actions. It is the "impossible thought of extinction."
  • The occulted world is what is hidden to us without human intervention making it so. It may present itself to us but that does not mean that it makes itself knowable to us. Rather, to be presented with the occulted world means to be made aware of the existence of things that are beyond our awareness. Thacker also refers to this as the hiddenness of the world.

Chapter-by-chapter

Preface - Clouds of Unknowing

There is a limit to our ability to comprehend the world (as demonstrated by natural disasters, pandemics, etc), which is a motif of horror. One of philosophy's great challenges is to comprehend the world in both human and non-human (or even human-less) terms, especially politically.

Natural disasters can act as a cataclysmic revelation or manifestation of the world and its unknowable aspect (or its aspect of unknowability). There are three typical modes of understanding the world and its manifestations (these modes are described in Terminology). Thacker wants to add a fourth: the cosmological.

This book is in part about the limitations and constraints of philosophy. It is a sort of negative theology, applied to philosophy or all knowledge through the lens of supernatural horror.

Horror should be understood as being about the limits of the human capacity to comprehend what is going on when we are confronted by what Thacker describes as "the planet." Horror is the enigmatic thought of the unknown, or thinking of the unthinkable. In other words, it is about blind spots.

I. Three Qaestio on Demonology

This chapter is primarily about demons and the meaning of black in the name "black metal." It is concluded that the core of black metal is negation and that demons are fundamentally about negation and nothingness; to describe in terms of the other concepts in this book, they are the anthropomorphism of the unhuman world when we encounter it in (what we would perceive to be) an antagonistic fashion.

The central point of the chapter is that there may be order to the universe but it is indifferent to us and we cannot be fully aware of it. Its central question is a problem that will continue to be addressed throughout the book: How do we rethink the world as being unthinkable?

  • Another quality of the things which Thacker is discussing (e.g. the world-without-us) is that it is hard or impossible to communicate them: they are experienced rather than learned.
  • "If demonology is to be thought in a philosophy register, then it would have to function as a kind of philosopheme that brings together a cluster of ideas that have, for some time, served as problematic areas for philosophy itself: negation, nothingness, and the non-human." [pg 45 | para 2]
  • Schopenhauer's philosophical equal, argues Thacker, is not to be found till Lovecraft: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far."

II. Six Lectio on Occult Philosophy

There is a distinction to be made between the apparent world, or the world as it appears to us (and appears to be) and the occulted world, or the occulted qualities of the world, a world that refuses to fully reveal itself. The problem is to encounter the occulted world without either mistaking it for our world (that is, for a knowable world) or discounting it. To understand the world-in-itself, we must have to try to imagine the world-without-us.

There is a lot of discussion about magic circles: their use in revealing the occulted world, protecting us from it, and the way in which the laboratory is a kind of modern magic circle. In Lovecraft's short story "From Beyond" it is revealed, through the magic circle, that there is already no boundary: the world-in-itself is all around us. The magic site, on the other hand, is where the hiddenness of the world is not dug up and discovered by us, but presents itself to us: the place where the Planet intrudes into our world, the closest that we can get to a manifestation of the unhuman world-without-us.

  • Thacker briefly raises the idea of a "political theology" of the hiddenness of the world, or an attempt to view politics through this framework, but he does not give us any answers (or, for that matter, suggestions): "In the face of politics, this unresponsiveness of the world is a condition for which, arguably, we do not yet have a language." [pg 96 | para 2]
  • "If the supernatural in a conventional sense is no longer possible, what remains after the 'death of God' is an occulted, hidden world." [pg 97 | para 1]

III. Nine Disputatio on the Horror of Theology

I have a lot of thoughts about this chapter but, sadly, most of them have to do with whether it was a good idea to spend so many pages on it.

The most important idea that the chapter raises: Extinction implies the nonexistence of all thought, including the thought of extinction. This is the end, not just of beings, but of experiences.

This idea is also worth a sentence: What cannot be named also cannot be thought.

"The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids"

This is where we dig into the idea of negative theology, whose premise is that, because the divine is beyond humanity and therefore unhuman, human thought cannot grasp it. If we seek to speak accurately of the divine (or, in Thacker's case, the world-without-us) then we cannot make positive statements. We can only affirm what is not. Negative theology recognizes the limitations of human thought and thus recognizes that the occulted world exists despite our inability to have knowledge of it.

We speak of darkness (as well as distance, emptiness, and silence) in relation to the divine (or the world-without-us) because it is beyond our capacity to know it. Historical mysticism (and this chapter is about the possibility of a "mysticism of the unhuman") involved a union of the self and the world, but modern mysticism must involve the dissolution of the barriers between the self and the world and, indeed, the dissolution of any interest in those barriers.

The world-without-us does not yet exist (if we're going to be strict enough to say that, because we currently exist in the cosmos, there is no part of it that is truly without us) but it did exist once, and it will exist again. We have been born from great depths which we can never experience. This is dark like a black hole: the light is there in theory (the world-without-us had, and will have, a physical existence) but is permanently inaccessible to us.

After accepting the premise of nihilism (that there is no meaning), the typical response is to either despair or make an attempt to create new meaning. Instead, Thacker argues (in reference to the Japanese philosopher Nishitani) that we should explore the abyss in which we have found ourselves, an act which may let us discover a way out.

  • An interesting dichotomy, presented by Georges Bataille by way of Thacker: We exist in the world but perceive the world as not-us, as an Other. Despite this perceived separation, we cannot exist outside the world, and in fact it might be better said that we exist as (part of) the world, with the statement that we exist in the world being a betrayal of this first line of thinking.
  • "Emptiness in the sense of sunyatta is emptiness only when it empties itself even of the standpoint that represents it as some 'thing' that is emptiness." [pg 157 | par 2]
  • All of this is comparable to Kant's doctrine of the phenomenal and noumenal worlds: the phenomenal is that which we can perceive, and the noumenal is that which definitely exists in itself but is beyond our knowledge of it because our faculties are insufficient.

Favorite passage

"The more we learn about the planet, the stranger it becomes to us." [pg 147 | para 1]

Comments

If the world is becoming increasingly unthinkable, as Thacker describes in the book's opening lines, can this book be understood as an attempt to talk (even accidentally) about what is coming?

In his Nine Disputatio, Thacker talks about the question of "What is Life?" and I wonder if there are any languages that can express concepts as existing, not in a binary, but on a spectrum.

The meat of the book is probably its final chapter, "The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids." Despite the flaws that I will be ennumerating in just a moment, I would recommend that you read at least the preface and the final chapter if anything in this review has piqued your interest. Alas, his later book Cosmic Pessimism was more akin to a pamphlet, and I don't know how much this book would have been harmed had it received the same treatment. Too much of this book is more useful to my work in horror fiction than my philosophy papers.

Criticisms

God preserve me from continental philosophers...

It is not clear to me whether Thacker is referencing old texts (e.g. Frazer, Freud) as examples of the evolution of our thinking about certain concepts described here, such as the demonic, or because he thinks that they are still useful in themselves. I have had enough with people who listen to crackpots (it is with great horror that I recall how dearly my past, Mormon self regarded Hugh Nibley) and I dislike the idea that this was written by another of their fans.

It is also striking to me that he concerns himself almost wholly with Western thought and Western literature for most of this book, touching on Eastern concepts only sparingly till the end. When the Thacker speaks of demons, their status in e.g. Chinese mythology is of no consequence.

However, it seems most probable that what Thacker is really doing here is playing with words and ideas to create something new. In that respect, the literal accuracy of these histories (or their broadness) is less important than whether they help the reader to grasp the ideas at hand.

At times, it appears that the world-in-itself and the world-without-us are confused and Thacker refers to one (typically the Planet) when the other term seems more appropriate. This is seen elsewhere, too, as when he speaks of different metaphysical principles in the Disputatio and refers to "flesh" and "meat" as separate principles. I can sort of see what he's aiming at, if I'm being charitable, and Thacker acknowledges some limitations in the case of his discussion of metaphysical principles, but I still worry that I might be giving too much slack to what is ultimately a load of incoherence.

Elsewhere in the Disputatio he asks whether it is possible to have a species without an organism, which is an intensely frustrating line of thought to have to wade through. Still later, he asks if "Life is really Life-without-Being," which would be infinitely recursive: if Life is really Life-without-Being, then that would require us to understand Life-without-Being as actually (Life-without-Being)-without-Being, and so on. I can't help but feel that he is sometimes playing word games with the reader.

Overall, I fear that I am missing something because, while the Disputatio make for interesting reading, they also appear to be pretty nonessential. If I'm reading them correctly, the same points could have been made by spending two pages on viruses, abiogenesis, and (perhaps) the different forms of death: brain death, brainstem death (not to be confused with the former), clinical death, and information-theoretic death. Instead what we get is thirty-four pages (the second longest chapter of the book) of ramblings about whether it is possible to have a species without an organism.

In "Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids," Thacker uses a poem of the same title as a jumping-off point for various ideas of his, much as he uses black metal, demonology, B-movies, and other subjects in previous chapters. Unfortunately, he talks about this poem as though it were an excerpt from the Necronomicon rather than his own creation, saying such things as "it is unclear whether the poem is of contemporary origin or whether it is a contemporary translation of an older text" and "parts of the poem have been said to have [...] verifiable geomantic symptoms within the metabolism and physiognomy of those who have, under unspecified conditions, recited its lines." The nonsense of these additions really detracts from the rest of the book and, as other sections have done, forces me to question whether Thacker is making a sincere attempt to convey something to the reader or is just asking us to pay $19.95 for the privilege of standing by as he engages in some sort of literary masturbation. #NotMyKink

(That said, I really like the poem)

Author biography

Eugene Thacker is a professor at The New School in New York. His writings cover such topics as antihumanism, nihilism, pessimism, and philosophy of horror. He received a PhD in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University.

Philosophers & works mentioned

Philosophers given significant attention include:

  • Georges Batailles, a French philosopher and literary critic whose work was influenced by Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and others. Among other things, he wrote some porn that later generations decided was actually pretty philosophical.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, who once advocated for the shooting of anti-Semites, and probably would have punched Hitler had he not died in August of 1900.
  • Keiji Nishitani, a Japanese philosopher whose work often bridged Eastern and Western ideas, such as Zen Buddhism and the existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher whose work was most notably inspired by Kant and various Indian religions, and was a major force within the field of philosophical pessimism. He would have become a Buddhist monk, but his ship sank on the way to India.
  • Lev Shestov and Simone Weil are only name-dropped but upon further research Shestov's philosophy and Weil's theology both look interesting, and I'm going to put them here so that I don't forget to look them up in the future.

Concepts given significant attention include:

  • Active vs passive nihilism: Two possible approaches to nihilism: in the active, nihilism is an unending process of of destroying old values and creating new values; in the passive, the process ends at the destruction of old values and does not continue into the creation of new values. Passive nihilism may also be referred to as fatalism.
  • Nhil privatum: The concept of an absence of an object.
  • Sunyatta: A Buddhist concept referring to the idea that "all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature," as well as the concept of "openness and understanding nonexistence." It can be translated as "devoidness," "emptiness," "hollowness," and "voidness."
  • Vorstellung: As described by translator Richard Aquilla, "The notion of a performance or a theatrical presentation[...] The world that we perceive is a 'presentation' of objects in the theatre of our own mind; the observers, the 'subject,' each craft the show with their own stage managers, stagehands, sets, lighting, code of dress, pay scale, etc." Most often translated as "Representation," but Aquilla argues that it should be translated as "Presentation" today.

Other articles & books on this subject

  • The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, by Thomas Ligotti
  • Cosmic Pessimism, by Eugene Thacker
  • The Trouble with Being Born, by Emil Cioran
  • The World as Will and Representation, by Arthur Schopenhauer

Also check out...

  • Near the end of his musings on black metal, Eugene Thacker names (and praises) the album So, Black is Myself, by Keiji Thaino, as being, essentially, more black metal than black metal itself and truer to the spirit of "cosmic pessimism" which Thacker argues is the underlying philosophy of black metal. You can listen to it here.

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