Monday, October 22, 2012

A Note on Cosmic Pessimism (from SoB)

Sunt lacrimae rerum
 – Virgil, Aeneid 1.462

Cosmic pessimism—the intellectual elevation of the worst to universal magnitudes—inhabits an essential paradox. On the one hand, it asserts that the ultimate truth of things, insofar as any such truth is knowable, lies within an essentially negative factuality: meaninglessness, suffering, nothingness, contingency, and so on. On the other hand, it necessarily denies, under penalty of not being properly cosmic, any ultimate significance to this truth, consigning the knowing of it to the abyss of an unmasterable, hopelessly exterior negativity. The cosmic pessimist is a peculiar kind of musical puppet whose ultimately meaningless movement hauntingly sounds the strings of the universal, foreclosed real. More specifically, cosmic pessimism thinks beyond thought by intensifying thought’s affect as its substance, by turning up the volume on the feeling of thought to a level of indistinction with the idea. It is in these terms that Eugene Thacker explicates cosmic pessimism as an art of flailing, a sorrow-filled intensification of human perspective:

The contours of cosmic pessimism are a drastic scaling-up or scaling-down of the human point of view, the unhuman orientation of deep space and deep time, and all of this shadowed by an impasse, a primordial insignificance, the impossibility of ever adequately accounting for one’s relationship to thought—all that remains of pessimism is the desiderata of affects—agonistic, impassive, defiant, reclusive, filled with sorrow and flailing at that architectonic chess match called philosophy, a flailing that pessimism tries to raise to the level of an art form.[1]

The incommensurability of thought and being, the impossibility of their proper relation, is the sorrow-filled space of cosmic pessimism. It is the domain where the cosmic pessimist, like Satan “flutt’ring his pennons vain,” falls and flies, crossing Chaos—if at all—“by ill chance” (Paradise Lost 2.933-5).[2] But what if one recognizes this space, the hopeless abyss between oneself and the greater universe, as itself a cosmic substance and the very medium wherein thought touches the real? What if the noetic no man’s land delimiting knowledge, which the human can at best only virtually fill with his own negativity, is actually sorrow itself as a universal condition of existence? Such recognition is perforce the unutterable, semi-conscious ‘hope’ of cosmic pessimism, not a hope for anything, nor a hope of any value, but a hope in the immanent truth of its own situation. “I turned away from philosophy,” writes Cioran, “when it became impossible to discover in Kant any human weakness, any authentic accent of melancholy [tristesse].”[3] The reality of sorrow is the substantial hook on which the inverted optimism of the anti-philosopher hangs, the necessary, essential term and actual being  of his truth.
     The real significance of cosmic pessimism lies less in doctrine than in its conscious disowning of the comprehensiveness of knowledge in the name of an ineradicable gap between science and its event, between knowing and the capacity to know. Cosmic pessimism from this perspective is not an –ism, but an act of showing, outside the parameters of formal proof, the non-philosophizability of the universe. It is a demonstration of the fact that the human, by virtue of its own event, is consitutively incapable of intellectually navigating the negativity of thought and being, of definitively illuminating the darkness of its relation to the real.         

[1] Eugene Thacker, “Cosmic Pessimism,” Continent 2 (2012): 66-75.
[2] John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merrit Y. Hughes (New York: Macmillan, 1957).
[3] E.M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Arcade, 1949), 47.