Friday, January 27, 2012

Mysticism or Mystification?: Against Subject-Creationism

[This essay is a response to Timothy Morton's "Waking Up Inside An Object," for a forthcoming issue of ELN]

In the abandon in which I am lost, the empirical knowledge of my similarity with others is irrelevant, for the essence of my self arises from this—that nothing will be able to replace it: the feeling of my fundamental improbability situates me in the world where I remain as though foreign to it, absolutely foreign.
– Georges Bataille

Nature is much greater than what a man can perceive through the ordinary senses of his physical body. The hidden aspects of nature consist of finer matter and forces. There is no unbridgeable gulf separating the finer aspects of nature from its gross aspect. They all interpenetrate one another and exist together.
– Meher Baba 

To preserve a place is to preserve distinction. Therefore I pray God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures. For in that essence of God in which God is above being and distinction, there I was myself and knew myself so as to make this man. Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal.
– Meister Eckhart

In response to the many points addressed in Timothy Morton’s exuberant and phenomenologically faithful description of what the subject, among other things, is, I will try to develop the one idea which I consider to be its most important possibility. This idea, which Morton’s thinking both entertains and occludes, is best expressed in the negative: the subject is not a product of the universe. Or, as the American sage Vernon Howard expresses it, “A body came into the world, but it wasn't you.”[1] Morton’s essay moves towards this principle insofar as it understands the subject as deep, that is, profoundly complicit and secretly constituted with the nature of everything. Neither a secondary emergence from things nor a transcendental precondition for them, the subject is universal and found everywhere as “the withdrawn strangeness of objects as such.” At the same time, Morton’s essay moves away from the idea of the non-produced nature of the subject insofar as it understands the subject as flat, as everywhere ontologically the same and essentially inessential, something that consists in nothing other than its own withdrawnness or impotentiality to be exhausted by events and appearances, a pure locality. Neither a self nor not a self, the subject is not at all a real or substantial ground of anything (not a soul), but only the hyper-situational core of that which exists in a “crowded bunch . . .  of strange strangers all the way down and all the way up,” a contingent weird thing whose “quintessence” is the “irony” that you are hopelessly enmeshed in a universe with no outside, drowning in “the ocean of the story.”
Staying within this flat depth or deep flatness (depending on your perspective), Morton’s vision of the reality of the subject hovers between mysticism and mystification, and with a correlatively ambivalent aesthetic affect: “Infinite coexistence. The thought of it should be truly horrible and depressing, as well as strangely funny and ironic.” On the one hand, there is the assertion of a fundamental absolute reality, a manifold endless all to which every individual is intimately and mysteriously bound. On the other hand, the intimacy and mystery of this binding (of the individual to the universal) is totally insignificant or without truth in that it marks only an inviolable absence of access to the all. There is a deep, mystical or hidden reality, a secret that encompasses all things, but that reality is itself mystified, a hyper-secret that is not even negatively knowable and may well be empty or banal: “Everything in the Universe from goldfish to intergalactic dust clouds hides the rules of its game from all comers, including themselves.” The truth of the subject, then, lies in its being the silent term of an inverted tautology: the secret of everything is that everything is secret. Where traditional mysticism is grounded in faith or intuition of an unspeakable yet subjectively realizable absolute secret (more or less, that the self is God), Morton’s postmodern installation of a self-secret subject is rooted in a species of mystical identification with the sensation of being, the felt predicament of subjectivity, such that mysticism, far from being an ultimate relation to the universal, becomes the mystifying domain of things themselves, an uncannily ontological world of disoriented objects: “this shared sensual space in which objects smack, insinuate and burst into one another.” This intellectual procedure is wholly in keeping with the way object-oriented ontology (OOO) in general tries to realize phenomenologically the speculative impulse as defined by Meillassoux: “we must transform our perspective on unreason, stop construing it as the form of our deficient grasp of the world and turn it into the veridical content of the world as such – we must project unreason into things themselves.”[2] In doing so, OOO effectively explodes the self-world correlation into the manifold cosmos itself, giving paradoxical birth to a philosophically regular endless universe composed entirely and essentially of manifest hiddenness.
I posit that what is really at stake here philosophically, what is dramatized in the intellectual hovering between mysticism and mystification, is a conflicted need (a mix of desire and fear) to finally let go of, or fatally reinvent, creationism. By creationism I mean not the religious variety, although the theology of creation is certainly relevant to the question, especially in light of the idea of divine creation as an event of ur-withdrawal, a withdrawal of God.[3] I mean instead the more generalized and harder-to-shake-off sense that oneself, along with everything else, is somehow an effect or product of a broader expansive universe, a grand ‘out there’ whose reality is prior to and fundamentally independent of one’s own. This belief in and perspective towards the world as an autonomous Real which is and must be whether one is or not, as it were, is inseparable from the general concept of subject as an individuated entity that is subject of world and its own event within it. The subject on this view is something produced or created by and within the universe in an uncanny event of oneself that is typically identified with birth: “To be born is both to be born of the world and to be born into the world.”[4] Thus, despite the apparently absolute, blank unintelligibility of this event, the radical capacity of consciousness both to ignore and reject it, and the problematic intellectual status of the creationist principle, a species of fundamentalist creationism continues to be maintained at the level of the subject (and in the service of identity as such) by philosophy and thinking in general. Let’s call this subject-creationism, the idea that the subject (and superiorly the ‘thrown’ philosophical subject as someone who is aware of this) is a pure secondary product of the universe. What accounts for this idea? Many would answer that it is simply patently true, a brute and inarguable fact that one’s being oneself is an ex nihilic event or real absurdity, a pure creation of things. I think that thinking so is only a way of numbing and normalizing a rather amazing and ultra-dynamic phenomenon, one that inherently demands intellectual and scientific investigation, and that accepting that ‘it is as it appears’ is comparable to ‘knowing’ the earth is flat.[5] Like any other anomaly, the individuated event of being requires speculative and empirical investigation, rather than relegation to a putatively purely metaphysical domain of mysterious final causes. My point here is not to promote any specific alternative to this subject-creationism (e.g. metempsychotic evolution), but to insist on the necessity and wisdom of refusing it, of wielding thought in revolt against any closure-by-contingency of the subject’s event. This means holding onto, as a kind of holy trinity of individuation, all three seemingly contradictory principles indicated by the epigraphs above, juggling or maintaining simultaneously in circulation that: 1) one is an absolute alien; 2) everything is coexistent and differentially touching in the all; 3) oneself and the universe are equiprimordial. Among the many related obstacles and acrobatic deficiencies this task presents, two deserve special comment: history and philosophy.             
The problem of subject-creationism obviously concerns postmedieval developments in the idea of the subject, the shift from cosmo-centricity to cosmo-eccentricity, for example, as well as the broader insidious institution of temporal history, human and otherwise, as the prime location or stage of the subject. Of this, the topical transition from place to time in Petrarch’s mountain summit meditation is a suitable icon: “Hence a new thought occupied my mind, one which shifted my focus from place to time.”[6] This shift is also foundational for later forms of cosmic horror that explore the essential impossibility of the subject, as indicated by Lovecraft’s definition of time as “the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe.”[7] Yet to historicize the subject, to treat it as itself a matter of time, also risks/intends evading and repressing the problem, disserving its ungraspable real immediacy in the name of a contextual understanding that only defers the real of subjectivity, its now, into a hallucinatory future-present. Whence Nietzsche’s critique of the “noble faith” of philology, “that for a sake a few who always ‘will come’ but are not there, a very great deal of painstaking, even unclean work needs to be done.”[8] The contradiction inherent to this dynamic of temporal avoidance is symptomized in the present age’s conjunction of historicism and escapism. The more the unitary fact of being-subject is coopted by the story of a singular-multiple we, the more intense the imperative to escape, precisely as a negative means of experiencing that fact, given that escape is an intimate exponent of the negativity of coming-to-be: “escape is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I [moi] is oneself [soi-même]. . . . It is being itself or the ‘one-self’ from which escape flees, and in no wise being’s limitation. In escape the I flees itself, not in opposition to the infinity of what it is not or of what it will not become, but rather due to the very fact that it is or that it becomes.”[9]
A particularly sneaky philosophical form of escape, or pseudo-escape, one that is also proper to historicism itself, is to maintain categorically that being has no summit, no position wherein it is perfectly disclosed to itself, that all being is a being-within something else, and that to behold and attempt a summit is a dangerous and irresponsible delusion. Stay where you are, this exile is home. The imperative is rhetorically powerful, and full of creative and contrary possibilities, but it will never blind me to the inexhaustible unhomeliness of this life, the literally essential error of ‘being’ a subject. On this point, Morton’s subject appears to surf an exciting wave between terror and freedom that flows upon the sea of an endless within, dancing to gnostic jazz in a mood of mobile, nomadic claustrophobia. Waking up inside an object is Lovecraftian – “I know not where I was born, save that the castle was infinitely old and infinitely horrible”[10] – but also liberating and fun because it takes place with the idea that there is no outside, only an infinite enclosure whose extent ruptures enclosure’s very possibility and meaning. Instead of the Nietzschean awakening to the absence of a selfless outside and the sonic pleasure of forgetting so – “For me—how could there be something outside of me? There is no outside! But we forget this with all sounds; how lovely it is that we forget!”[11] – we are presented its inverse: there is nothing that the self is not within (in the restricted sense) and the truth of music is to awaken us to this emergent fact – “A terrible signal, too weak to even recognize” (Talking Heads). From the historical point of view, this is an interesting and significant move in that it neo-medievalizes subjectivity, restoring it to cosmic place and rescuing it from the blindness of anthropocentric history. Yet by investing so much ontological capital in the within, the move inescapably betrays its own condition of possibility, namely, that the consciousness of being within is proof of being without. Or as Plotinus put it, “Soul is not in the universe, on the contrary the universe is in the Soul.”[12]       
                Historicism’s buttressing of subject-creationism is of a piece with what François Laruelle has with ruthless eloquence criticized as philosophical decision, the impure decision to philosophize, to treat reality as there for philosophy, as its object, and thus also transcendentally ‘create’ the philosophical subject. “The philosophical Decision is an operation of transcendence which believes (in a naïve and hallucinatory way) in the possibility of a unitary discourse on Reality. . . . To philosophize is to decide Reality and the thoughts that result from this, i.e. to believe to be able to order them in the universal order of the Principle of Reason (Logos).”[13] The decision is hallucinatory in the sense that it forecloses the Real in the name of philosophy, giving instead a World which is “a mixture of the (hallucinated) Real and of the philosophical logico-real,” a World constitutionally opposed to the real Real or “the One . . . the real insofar as it forecloses all symbolization (thought, knowledge, etc.).”[14] Philosophy is thus profoundly and significantly bound to the subject who thinks itself away from, forgets to inherit, and abandons its own immanent and perhaps infinite reality, who sees and identifies itself as created in the image of the world.  This is precisely the substance of the quarrel between philosophy and mysticism, as Laruelle articulates: “Philosophy is this organon, this a priori form which, giving us the World, forecloses the mystical experience which intrinsically constitutes humans and which is a question of rediscovering, not in its reality which has never abandoned us, but on the mode of thought and by the non-philosophical force of the latter.”[15]
                The abandonment of subject-creationism thus opens itself as a proper avenue for the application of non-philosophical thought, a way to newly exit and enter this place around the pivot of an essential error, embracing, as Reza Negarestani calls it, the folly of the impossible: “averting the path of the state or capitalism is no longer a matter of treason or disobedience but the folly of the impossible – trying to walk away from the world. . . . only by rigorously embracing this folly can we develop a genuine non-restricted dialectical synthesis with the universal absolute and unbind a world whose frontiers are driven by the will of the open and whose depths are absolutely free.”[16] Here one may take a hint from the mystic who, in desperate flirtation with refusal of the ‘gift of being’,[17] wrestles createdness to the ground and finds the summit where one is “neither oneself nor someone else.”[18]
There is no contradiction between embracing this folly and one’s neighbor, a not-so-strange stranger.  

[1] Vernon Howard, Your Power of Natural Knowing (New Life Foundation, 1995), 164.
[2] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008), 82.
[3] For example: “The doctrine of tzimtzum, of God’s self-limitation, states that the primeval act of creation by God was not one in which the Infinite left its mysterious depths, an act of emanation from within to without, . . . but that this primal step was in fact ‘the contraction of the Infinite from Himself to Himself, an act of self-gathering and contraction within Himself in order to create the possibility of the processes of the world” (Gershom Scholem, On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997], 151). The principle of divine withdrawal is also proper to the emanationist model of creation: “[T]he very cause of the universe . . . is also carried outside of himself . . . He is . . . enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things, and he does so by virtue of his supernatural and ecstatic capacity to remain, nevertheless, within himself” (Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem [New York: Paulist Press, 1987], Divine Names, 4.13, p.82).
[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962), 527.
[5] Two promising lines of inquiry that cannot be pursued here come to mind: 1) The question of a structural analogy between flat ontologies and flat earth theories. What is the new experience that would discover the real curvature behind OOO? 2) The question of the analytical applicability of OOO to the fact of individuation. Is individuation an object?        
[6] Francesco Petrarca, Ascent of Mount Ventoux: the Familiaris IV, I (Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 2006), 101.
[7] H.P. Lovecraft, “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” (1937), cited from Benjamin Noys, “Horror Temporis,” Collapse 4 (2008): 277.
[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 99,
[9] Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 55. See also Nicola Masciandaro, “The Sorrow of Being,” Qui Parle 19 (2010): 9-35.
[10] H.P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider,” .
[11] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 175.
[12] Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1992), 472.
[13] François Laruelle, Dictionary of Non-Philosophy, trans. Taylor Adkins (n.p., 2009), 56.
[14] Ibid., 88, 86.
[15] Ibid., 53.
[16] Reza Negarestani, “Globe of Revolution: An Afterthought on Geophilosophical Realism,” unpublished.
[17] As described, for example, in The Cloud of Unknowing: “Alle men han mater of sorow, bot most specyaly he felith mater of sorow that wote and felith that he is. Alle other sorowes ben unto this in comparison bot as it were gamen to ernest. For he may make sorow ernestly that wote and felith not onli what he is, bot that he is. And whoso felid never this sorow, he may make sorow, for whi he felid yit never parfite sorow” (The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher [Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997], 43: 1554-61, my emphasis).
[18] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, Mystical Theology, 1011A, p.137.