The following text shares Sloterdijk’s premise about practice: “anyone who takes part in a program for de-passivizing himself, and crosses from the side of the merely formed to that of the forming, becomes a subject.” He terms such practice anthropotechnics. An anthropotechnic happens at the meeting of the personal and the social. The individual is making an effort to enhance his psycho-symbolic “immunological” status. But such efforts must also serve to increase the “cognitive capital of our society.” “Meditation in Ruin” is addressing what I think has to happen at the very outset of such a practice, what lies in front of practice. In a sense, the text is asking about the basic conditions that permit us to speak of Laruelle’s “stranger subject.” This subject is deeply allergic to representations–a condition that in itself catalyzes not only an approach to practice, but a quite particular practice. And yet, representation is the basic stuff of shared life, language, communication, and beyond. Is practice transposed from its ancient home, the idealists’ haven, possible today?
Meditation in Ruin
I do think this way, it is true, but in the manner of a coward, like someone who is inwardly raving mad with terror.
—Georges Bataille, on negation.
This text once aspired to be an exercise, an exercitia. It desired to say something valuable, to be of help, to show a way. But those days have long passed. Its words have soiled themselves with doubt. It is speech pitted with disillusion. Its paragraphs are a squall of confusion and worry. I am afraid that what follows is delinquent in the niceties of persuasion. Simply put: it is too late for arguments. For, “can anyone who has reached the limit bother with arguments?” That is not to say that this text recoils from overreach and even bombast. Or that it banks its wings away from the sun of beauty. It burns for beauty! But the beauty of Hölderlin: “Does the laughter of people make me sad? Of course it does. After all, I have a human heart.” Stupidly, this text still pines for meaning, goodness, hope, and all of that. As you will find, though, it knows only the blackness of a faded dream and the memories of someone about to die.
By turns worrisome and ridiculous, words like that at least exude the ruination that I wish to unbind with this text. Think of that goal as emerging from a dialectic of excremental inversion. Dialectics posits that knowledge is dynamic—it’s alive, it moves. To be effective, our thinking, our analyses, must thus keep pace. (Hence: “To understand analysis is to understand dialectics.”) We will always have, first, our abstraction. And whether it is a chimera of reverie or the hardened certainty of Weltanschauung, our abstraction will always lack consummation with the lived. We come to this conclusion through real-world trial and error. That is to say, we will always have, next, our negation. And in the atmosphere of the real the abstraction corrodes. Yet in this very decomposition, something remains. It falls. We pick it up. The analysis resumes. We perceive a concrete—some electric x that survives the passage from plenitude toward destitution. Short of disappearing into nothingness, this x falls with a thud into the lived real. That alluring aroma drifting off the abstract (love, equality, wisdom, etc., etc.) as it falls, is its attrition, its cut, molecule by molecule into the fetid stench of the unadorned real. All things turn to shit. But is not shit itself a precious, all-too-necessary aide-mémoire of our status as Homo sapiens ape?
This text concerns an organon that places you at the threshold to analytic ruin. You may temporarily stave off the inevitable with any number of fantastic conceptual constructions. In this case, you turn back. Another possibility: You engage the analysis, but only to palliative ends, and fall short of ruin. Still another possibility: You do not to flinch from the very fact that drove you back into the warm lap of consolation. This fact is central to ruin. This fact is inexorable and inevitable. It is rendered doubtful only by virtue of the darkest human ignorance or through an act of a gargantuan will to deny. If the history of the world is any indication, this fact is portentously hideous. If the history of our cultural institutions, of our language, of our very biology is any indication, no greater menace threatens humanity. The fact: dissolution—the vaporous effervescence haunting existence, the genetrix of Homo narcissicus’ bastard bugbear, nihil. Not flinching before the presence of dissolution, you cross the threshold to ruin and don’t turn back.
Dissolution is self-evident. It obtains immediately in every instance of perception, conception, and sensation. Over greater spans of time, say a lifetime, it is made evident through comparison and memory. Science traces it over eons, before the advent of human beings. It traces it, too, into oblivion, when “the accelerating expansion of the universe will have disintegrated the fabric of matter itself, terminating the possibility of embodiment,” when “every star in the universe will have burnt out, plunging the cosmos into a state of absolute darkness and leaving behind nothing but spent husks of collapsed matter.” Dissolution is instantaneous and continuous. It is to extinction what a molecule is to mass, argon to vapor. Extinction describes more than the absolute cessation of objects and entities: it describes the condition that negates even the possibility of their being further extinguished. Extinction is patient: it waits for the final instance. Its purview is immense and vast. It sees its object after millions and millions of years. Dissolution occurs in the midst of things—in the salience of their rising, persisting, and fading away. Its view is minute and narrow. It sees its object in an instant of intimate if destructive embrace. Yet, being instantaneous and continuous, dissolution is not extinguished. Although a concept itself, dissolution is one that hovers near the fact it names, rendering it intelligible. Dissolution as concept lends lucidity to what, without it, remains a dark, foreign, and harrowing domain. The concept dissolution makes possible the thinking of the fact of dissolution. Yet, thinking is mere thinking. The facts of human being seem to necessitate no constraint to human thinking. Thinking is often contentedly at odds with being. Intelligibility and lucidity, by contrast, though characteristics of thinking, suggest thought wading into the surging sea of immanence.
We can view it in the register of thought itself, for “What is at all familiar and cognitively understood is not really understood for the very reason that it is familiar. The most common form of self-deception and deception of others is to presuppose something as familiar and then to drop the subject. Such knowledge, with all of its back and forth chitchat, never gets anywhere, without ever knowing why.” We do know why, of course. Thought seeks the consolations of familiar certainties, even if they are mere positive abstractions, and thus refuses to “linger, to “tarry” with the infinite negativity that constitutes both the subject and his conceptions. Such tarrying is experienced as death—ideological, subjective, and always with premonitions of the impending actual. “Death…is the most terrifying thing of all, and to hold fast to what is dead requires the greatest strength. Powerless beauty hates the understanding because the understanding expects of her what she cannot do. However, the life of wakefulness is not a life that flinches from death and saves itself from ruin; rather, it bears death, and in death, it sustains itself.” That life, the life of wakefulness, is not found in the refuge of our abstract positives. It is found only in “absolute disruption” that is this lingering, this tarrying in the negative. “This lingering is the magical power that converts it into being…The activity of dissolution/analysis is the force and labor of the understanding, the most astonishing and mightiest of powers, or rather the absolute power.”
Is there an organon of dissolution? I believe that there is. But unlike the inflated flights of fancy roused by the ghostly shades of familiar representations (abstractions), the organon entails relentless deflation. The voiding of imaginary plenitude requires unflinching commitment to the banalities of immanence. The organon is thus rooted in our shared sensorial embodiment. Even thinking appears, in its midst, as physicality—as immanent fact itself. The organon is the laying-bare of phenomenal display, along with the display’s ideological matrix. The organon is to consciousness what skin is to the body: organic interface, exposure to, and coalescence with environment. Like skin, it is a tool, a means of apprehension, an organ. It is the laying bare of body to body in and of itself, of sensation to sensation in and of itself, of thought to thought in and of itself, of each to the other, of each to the whole, and of the whole to environment. This organon, like skin, is rooted on the surface of things.
The organon consists of two modes: the anthropotechnic per se and the conceptual calculus. What is this figure, the calculus of the organon? I am using “calculus” in three distinct but related senses. A calculus purports to model change. It is concerned both with the tangent or trajectory of continuous instantaneous change and the area or space that ensues, even if only momentarily, from that change. As such, a calculus is concerned with the quantification of real-world limits. Newton’s use of the calculus allowed a mathematical description of physical phenomena. The calculus of the organon allows for a conceptually deflated, qualitative, description of a non-component of the non-physical world: dissolution. What the calculus describes is precisely a “non-component” and is “non-physical” because “it,” unlike the persevering bodies described by physicists, names those continuous instantaneous instants when physicality is dissolved. Dissolution—the phenomenon tracked by the calculus of the organon—is a non-existent proxy for what was but is no longer. Glowing like phosphorescence where the “no-longer” had just been, dissolution is evanescent but immanently real. Another meaning of “calculus” is in play here. This sense is derived from the original Latin past participle calculare, “to account, to reckon.” It is surely clear that the calculus results in a perspicuous account and reckoning of a profoundly consequential feature of human existence. The clarity of this reckoning puts in play the third sense of “calculus.” A calx (of which calculus is the diminutive) was the pebble used for actual accounting. From this usage is derived the connotation of a hard lump produced by the concretion of minerals. Kidney stones are an example. Tartar and plaque are other examples. A calculus thus names an infinitesimally minute quantity of matter that has aggregated and hardened into a quantifiable lump. Such calculi are found in the body’s hollow organs and ducts. They are generally painful. The calculus of the organon is similarly jarring. It is unflinching, precise, and unequivocal. Most crucially, it is conspicuous, manifest, and verifiable. The logic of the calculus is unsparing.
What is this figure, the anthropotechnic of the organon? Merely taking seriously the conceptual calculus renders transparent the imaginaires, the salvific big Others, that we so craftily conjure—with the complicity of others—out of our suffering and desire. How much more damage is done by pushing the calculus to its limit. Doing so shatters the accord that the imaginaire presumes to sustain, inducing quite literally chronic, incurable disenchantment. Application of the calculus, to any degree, renders childlike all of what is paraded before us as “spirituality” and religion, including the reigning raja of covertly spiritualized contemplation, the dharma of western Buddhism. Still, subjectivity, identity, habitus, ideology, etc., being as inevitable as they are indispensable as features of human formation (”man produces man”), we have to ask: is not practice, is not a training regimen, unavoidable? “Wherever one encounters human beings, they are embedded in achievement fields and status classes.” It becomes a question, then, of whether to settle content within one’s given field and class, losing sight of the very fact of habitus, or to exert oneself, like Nietzsche’s acrobat, in continuous horizontal “self-forming and self-enhancing behavior.” Recognizing “the immunitary constitution of human being”—this is Sloterdijk’s Homo immunilogicus—we can no longer ignore the fact that we live in “symbolic immune systems and ritual shells.” Our imaginaires, that is to say, are erected as refuges against biological, psychological, and social contingency. This is why, as Rilke noticed, “The creature gazes into the open with all its eyes.” Not settling content with the merely received, with the accidents of our personal history, we seek a new sublime. And so, to that end, we employ an anthropotechnic of verticality—of upward overcoming, of self-mastery, of tension from above. I call it sublime because it is, of course, impossible to realize. The vertical line is tethered to nothing. It is suspended in a void. Its peak is unattainable. And yet: “don’t give up on your desire!” For, jouissance, the enlivening surge that spews forth from the erotic embrace of pain and desire satisfies to the extent that it wounds. Even if such consummation of the sublime were possible, we are far from a cause for jubilation. The sublime, recall, is monstrous. “The sublime moves us…The expression of a person in full thrall of the sublime is serious, at times fixed and amazed…The sublime is at times accompanied by some horror or melancholy, sometimes merely by tranquil admiration, and sometimes by the beauty of a sublime vista. The first I want to call the terrible sublime, the second the noble, and the third the magnificent. Deep loneliness is sublime, but in a terrifying way.” And yet we lace our boots, and set out for Mount Improbable.
Let’s first consider some consequences of the organon’s calculus for an anthropotechnic. If, for instance, the calculus models the trajectory of dissolution, if it reveals that everything is always and perpetually dissolving-dissolved (instantaneously from the side of subjective apprehension, glacially from the side of objects themselves), are not certain possibilities that we so dearly hold to be woven into the very fabric of human existence obviated, or at least disastrously impeded? Employing the calculus in good faith implies a willingness to replace belief with knowledge; it implies a will to know. What if this will to know, to paraphrase Ray Brassier, is driven by the traumatic reality of dissolution itself? Can the organon of the traumatic reality of dissolution “become equal to the trauma…whose trace it bears”? Brassier, whose concern is the relation between philosophy, which he insists is the very “organon of extinction” since extinction is the very condition of life that makes thought (of which philosophy is a concerted instance) possible and the fact of extinction, concludes that philosophy does become equal to the trauma that it traces; and, in so doing, “achieves a binding of extinction, through which the will to know is finally rendered commensurate with the in-itself.” I will likewise claim that our organon binds with dissolution, rendering the practitioner’s knowledge commensurate with dissolution itself. The organon is the instrument, the knowledge, of ruin. The calculus is the model of what we come to apprehend (the “in-itself”).
What do we come to know? Can we allow for a moment that “Eros alone can fulfill life; knowledge, never…knowledge is empty infinity”? Here, our knowledge concerns recognition and attraction; it concerns unison, carnality, and consummation. (“Adam knew Eve, his wife; and she conceived.”) Knowledge of what? Can we not permit—indeed, as decisive—into the sphere of our thinking “this thought in its most terrible form: existence as it is without meaning or aim, yet recurring inevitably without any finale, into nothingness”? Those readers who balk might prefer to place a statement like this within the circle of affirmation that so aggressively rings our culture of “well-being.” Affirmationism: the transubstantiation of even the basest, darkest, most realistic conceptions of human life into nodes of creativity, novelty, progress, and goodness. Affirmationism insists: celebrate! Even Nietzsche felt such a need: “We have created the weightiest thought—now let us create the being for whom it is light and pleasing!” Stepping outside of this intoxicating circle, we hear the stammering voices of the ruined: “What would be my—how should I call it—spontaneous attitude towards the universe? It’s a very dark one…There is nothing, basically. I mean it quite literally. Like, ultimately there are just some fragments, some vanishing things. If you look at the universe, it’s one big void. Ultimately, there are just…some vanishing things.” The ruined: those who have come to terms. “In secula seculorum, until the planet’s crust crumbles to dust.”
Come to terms with what? Let’s try this out. —With the human subject as the night of the world: “The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him—or which are not present.” —With the fact that our loveliest ideologies, unending riches of representations as they are, are at odds with the spirit that haunts this night. —That our conceptual riches toil to hold reality together as a unified whole, as an integrated totality, yet everywhere the fragmentary, contingent shrapnel of reality gashes our scalp. —That the incantatory vibrato plucking the soul’s heartstrings struggles to stave off of the traumatizing threats of the looming real. —That the soul’s symphonies are trembling, unrhythmic, and fitful to the very extent that they are emotionally virtuosic. —That we, the in-human, hear, and, with gnostic exhaustion, move forward in the dark.
The components of the calculus name the contours of coming-to-terms: disenchantment, ancestral anamnesis, vanishing, phenomenal identity, nihility, thinking, contingency, world, surface, lucidity, extinction. The genealogy of the Buddhist progenitor (“the Buddha” as historical figure overwritten by a literary figure) articulates this most exigent human knowledge thus: nibbida, sati, anicca, anattā, suññatā, papañca, paticcasamuppāda, loka, sabba, paññā, nirvāṇa. For now, I will honor this particular genealogy of ruin. Such honor entails, initially, approbation; then, annihilation; and finally, annexation or appropriation.
Approbation: We find value in the concepts. They possess a vibrato that rings true. Annihilation: Yet, we hear a clanking ruction alongside the whirring vibrato. That sound is the forceful wrenching of a magisterial big Other at the heartstrings of the yearning soul. So, as Laruelle says of the world-splitting specular pretensions of philosophical difference, “we must invalidate [the concepts] in one blow and without remainder. We must presuppose every conceptual term to be already divested of all power.” Appropriation: In this way, we will make use of the material, annexing it to the always in-human.
The annihilated-annexed concepts, decimated via transcendental molting, are rendered, simply, first names: “Fundamental terms which symbolize the Real and its modes according to its radical immanence or its identity.” “The real”—let’s drop the Germanic Pickelhaube—we take as an axiomatized function. Let’s think of it as the for-real? or the get-real! We all know the effects of the real, or should. The effects are those of the “sheer lived.” The real does not concern atoms—it is not matter. It is not an empirical plane. It is not given to phenomenological analysis. It can be symbolized and conceptualized interminably—just consider the infinity of human ideologies, those peculiar mixtures of facticity and fiction. The real can be symbolized because it constitutes the sine qua non condition for thought. And it is constituted unilaterally, from its side only, given without being given by thinking or theory, closed to the longing phantasms of the human imaginaire. It can be symbolized; but it cannot be adequately represented. Though exiled due to the real’s undying indifference, there might be some strangers among us, some who hew closely to the real’s mute and dumb effect. The Stranger, “the identity of the real is non-reflected, lived, experienced, consumed while remaining in itself without the need to alienate itself through representation.” If a glimmer into this, the real, is not the point, then we are wasting our time. What if the negation were the core?
The conceptual calculus. We take as our material: ruins of the buddhist symbolic real. But we easily slip into the eternal sporting fields of our religions, spiritualties, and even secularizations. Recast as decimated (transcendentally minimalized) first names, we posit them as human truths.
The truth of disenchantment. Nibbida: [revulsion, aversion, disgust] → Disenchantment. The buddhist term aspires to hoist an ancient ascetic religious value onto our contemporary secular lay situation. Nibbida solemnly declares: through insight born of extensive contemplation, the mature practitioner comes to see the unsatisfactory nature of the “aggregates,” the self-structure that conditions individual subjective experience. So seeing, he becomes disgusted, turns away from the contents of sensory data, and achieves an apocalyptic peace, a peace outside of time and place. Disgust: the ferry of homo religiosus, crossing the lake of fire to the silver shore. Disgust is the vehicle to numerous spiritual way stations: degradation of the flesh; valorization of sexual abstinence; hostility toward food; deprivation of desire; antipathy toward pleasure; suspicion toward non-compliers. Catherine of Genoa claims eternal satiety in the presence of the Lord, yet licks her plate like a feral bitch. Today, too, the Young Girl, regardless of gender or age, “struck by sudden vertigo whenever the world stops revolving around her,” wills on her mystical pre-pubescent body the holy stigmata—self-mutilation, emaciation, protection and devotion tattooed into the flesh. It is a quest for purity and perfection. Disgust caws “withdraw and shrivel!” Our first name quells this ascetic siren call. We hear instead the truth of disenchantment. Disenchantment is prima causa. It beckons “enough already!” It is the disposition that prepares the cognitive and affective apparatuses for the unflinching acceptance of all human truths. Disenchantment is born of an irrefutable discovery: the fact that no system of thought and no single person, not even the protagonist-as-thaumaturge, can identify an ultimate refuge. It entails banishment from the sunny climes of the human agreement system, being, as it is, “incompatible with the reality of the organs.” Disenchantment augurs passage.
Image: Jake and Dinos Chapman, “Sad Presentiments,” from Insult to Injury, 2003
Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life (London: Polity Press, 2013).
Epigraph: Georges Bataille, “Unknowing and Rebellion,” in Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (eds.), The Bataille Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p.329.