THIS IS THE 47th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with philosopher and poet Eugene Thacker, who is professor at The New School in New York City.
BRAD EVANS: From searching questions on horror to rethinking nihilism, in both explicit and in more subtle ways your work has continually spoken to the problem of violence. But what does the word “violence” mean to you right now? And do you think it has conceptual importance for confronting the state of the world today?
EUGENE THACKER: Actually, you’re the person to answer this more than I … But one thing I notice about the word “violence” today is a certain duplicity. On the one hand, there is a semantic reductionism to the term “violence,” understood as physical violence. On the other hand, there is also an overwhelming conceptual variance to the term “violence,” where it’s taken as metaphor, or analogy, or expanded into a whole typology of different kinds of violence. It seems to me that political discourse is constantly juggling these two basic tendencies. In quotidian English, we regularly employ the term in ways that betray our human-centric bias; beyond physical violence, and beyond violent acts perpetrated by human beings, we also refer to animals, machines, microbes, ideas, the weather, and even the cosmos as violent. At some point, merely existing is violence. But surely this is going too far …
In a recently published and sensitively crafted book titled On the Suffering of the World, you have turned your attention directly to later writings of Schopenhauer. Aside from its compelling mediations, what I found particularly striking was the way you emphasized the question of dread and how it connects to philosophical inquiry as thinking itself collides with the lived question of suffering. In particular, I was struck by the convincing move you suggest away from the idea of a certain fear of death to the concern with a dread for living and the burdens it forces us to endure. Why do you feel this focus on the dreaded conditions of life offers an important shift in our understanding of suffering?
Typically the so-called existential concerns of Western philosophy are obsessed with mortality, finitude, and death as they are projected back onto a life that is then lived with this awareness. I found the later Schopenhauer compelling because he inverts this approach — from the fear of death to the dread of life. The fear of death presumes that this strange thing called “life” is so amazing to begin with. Says who? Schopenhauer sort of calls the bluff on this anthropocentric bias of the living toward life. Part of this is due to the influence that classical Indian philosophy had on him, but the other part is basically his grumpy demeanor (which I find strangely endearing). But he makes the point that it is only we as human beings who conceptualize something called “life,” who invest life with value and meaning and purpose, in the process generating all these deep-seated conceptual dichotomies (living/nonliving, organic/inorganic, nature/artifice, human/animal/machine, etc.). It struck me that the level at which Schopenhauer was pitching his questions is also quite apt for our own era, in which we are routinely confronted with phenomena — from rapidly mutating microbes to vast and shifting weather patterns — which force us to reconsider some of our most basic concepts, at least at a philosophical level. Whether we do so in our everyday lives is another matter.
I am taken here by the concerns you raise with the anthropocentric bias and the invocation of “life” as a primary determinant in our social and political understanding. Mindful of this, how do now you perceive the shift in the past decade toward theories of the Anthropocene and the ways in which it actually seems to double down on the centrality of “life itself” as a key political category?
Well, I want to be mindful of the distinction between the science informing the Anthropocene theories and the interpretations of its significance or what it may mean. Obviously I’m not in a position to make any assessments about the science, but what I do find striking is how the discourse of the Anthropocene seems to have triggered a whole host of “big questions” — even in public and political discourse we routinely hear phrases like the “existential threat of climate change” and so on. But this is not the old existentialism obsessed with individual human self-determination in the absence of religious, moral, or political systems of meaning-making. The Anthropocene idea is a confrontation with death, yes, but a species-wide level — not the death of the individual but the extinction of the species. Another logic of death, a death of different order. But who will bear witness to the extinction of the species? There’s something inherently self-defeating about it.
At the same time, the ongoing deployment of biotechnologies and Big Pharma, the continued research into instrumentalizing complex adaptive systems, and the more recent developments in geoengineering, climate engineering, and planetary design are all implicitly questioning the traditional dichotomy in the West between nature and technics — often to the point where it becomes impossible to demarcate where “technology” ends and something else called “nature” begins. So if there is an “existential crisis” happening, perhaps it’s less about “life” or the meaning of life, and instead about a fundamental inability to relate to a world that we are a part of, but that we also stand apart from: the inability of resolving the rift between the world made in our own image and the world as indifferent to our wants, hopes, and desires; the futility of separating the planet from politics; the slow but steady erosion of any boundary between nature and technology.
There is a tragic irony in the Anthropocene idea. We do matter after all. The evidence? We have created the conditions for our own extinction. I suppose that is an achievement, of sorts. So convinced are we as human beings that we matter that we are willing to sacrifice the planet for our own species-specific self-importance. In a way, “the Anthropocene” is actually the pinnacle of Humanism.
Thinking about the problematic of life in terms of the past year, what seems quite evident to me is how the pandemic has completely collapsed the human back into the species. By this I mean we have become more and more aware of our complex bio-political framing within broader ecologies. This brings back something you mentioned in a previous conversation we had when you noted how viruses are completely indifferent to the suffering of humans. Can you elaborate more on what you mean by this and what this indifference should provoke in our thinking?
As we know, a virus spreads not just through the biological networks of infection but through technological networks of transportation and communication. A biological network that is inseparable from an informatic network. Networks layered on networks. Networks fighting networks. Today, the enforced hermeticism we’re experiencing — itself made possible by both biological and technological networks — results in heightened engagement with communications technologies, a strange form of interactive asceticism as a form of social distancing. Communication, communicable — our new “ascetic ideal.” Nietzsche would laugh … or cry … or both. Somewhere I think Baudelaire says, “All our ills come from not staying on our own rooms…” (Actually I wasn’t sure it was Baudelaire so I looked it up, couldn’t find the quote, and found this instead: “Life is a hospital where each patient is possessed by the desire to change beds.”)
What gives me pause is how, all the while, the profound indifference of one kind of life renders another kind of life mute. The virus continues virus-ing. And on top of it, we will only ever know the virus as “a virus,” as a bioinformatic assemblage of replicating RNA inside a protein shell, but also as a microbial invader, as a reminder of the dual resilience and fragility of life, the virus as a social, political, or economic threat, as part of a “war” (a new kind of bio-war, no doubt), a war in which only one of the sides views it as a war at all. It’s not personal. An organism (us) is infected with a microbe, that microbe is analyzed and sequenced using genome technologies (linked to bio-databases), computational biology (from genetic engineering to 3D protein modelling) is utilized in the development of a drug, vaccine, or other treatment (which could involve gene therapy techniques that utilize “emptied” viruses as delivery agents), which is then introduced (or re-introduced?) into a host organism (us), and all of it aided by telemedicine, overpriced health insurance, my misguided WebMD “research,” and diagnostics apps for the iPhone. What is endemic is also epidemic and eventually pandemic (within, across, and above the demos, “the people”). But from another perspective, human culture is simply a growth medium.
I would now like to connect this book to your wider corpus and in particular explore more the idea of the void, which appears here in the title to the book’s introduction. While it’s seemingly a truism that many philosophers and critical thinkers like to invoke the term, it isn’t actually something many prefer to dwell upon too much beyond giving a certain recognition to absence or nothingness. Mindful then of your earlier mediations, what more can be said on the void, which to my estimation at least, still offers us such a fertile territory for rethinking annihilation and poetic alternatives?
It’s always tricky to recast all of one’s work under a single rubric. For me at least, it wasn’t all planned out beforehand, so why would I pretend that it all makes sense after the fact? That said, I do sometimes feel that much of my writing is really about negation. All the other terms — the void, the abyss, nothing, nothingness, nihilism, emptiness, “dark” this and that — are really, for me, about negation. And negation is interesting because, the moment we bring it up, it’s no longer “there.” It could be a Continental philosopher discussing “nothingness,” or an astrophysicist talking about black holes and dark energy, or a horror writer invoking the “Crawling Chaos,” or a scholar of Mahāyāna Buddhism referring to śūnyatā, or a logician working with paraconsistent operators, or Medieval mystical poetry articulating the ineffable (in language) — for me what’s compelling about negation is how it’s related to the limit of thought, and by extension, the limit of the human. When I find philosophy interesting — which I confess is not often — it’s because of this tendency in certain philosophies toward the distintegration of thought. Thinking as a dissipative process. Sometimes this produces a kind of humility. Sometimes it even produces tranquility. Sometimes.
Such limits conditions or thresholds are also to my estimation precisely the fine lines between what is permissible and what is being denied. This in turn points us directly to the inherent tensions within freedom itself, the freedom to become something other than oneself versus the freedom toward the total annihilation of the other. How would you consider this disintegration in thought in respect to the violence in thought, which might also be seen as potentially affirming?
I’m going to disappoint you here, in that I don’t really think of whatever I’m writing about in terms of “freedom” — I probably should, but I don’t. I’m just not interested. Life — even at its “best” — is so often barely worth the hassle that it’s never occurred to me to address something like “freedom.” It’s presumptuous. But I suppose I should at least parse the question. There’s the “freedom to…” or “freedom toward…” which has built into it a certain optimization, if not optimism, with regards to the subject. American culture in particular excels in this kind of freedom. But there’s also a “freedom from…” which is not just pouty Bartleby-ism (which I admit I do enjoy), but maybe freedom to not be, freedom from the existential imperative to live on, freedom from being and from becoming. Just as I write this, I realize how embarrassingly romantic that sounds. I don’t know. Maybe what’s needed is freedom from “freedom” itself and all the political and moral baggage associated with the term. Maybe what political thinking needs is a freedom from the sluggish, dull-eyed, human-centric categories of political thinking itself. But do we really need yet another patronizing, self-aggrandizing, public intellectual-cum-guru ceremoniously invoking “The Political” as we all stroke our collective beards and nod in sage unison?
Well, there’s certainly nothing wrong with being a romantic, especially in these times! While not a nodding sage, surely there’s no better person to turn too right now than William Blake. Anyhow, I would like to end on the question of pedagogy and what it means for any form of critical intervention today. I fully agree with you on the collapse between technology and nature. Indeed, if there has been a “victor” during the pandemic, it seems to be the power of technology that has accelerated and deepened its reach into our lives in ways that were difficult to achieve only a year ago. What concerns you the most about education in these increasingly technologized times? And might we not detect a certain radical delusion by thinkers who claim to be critiquing power, yet feed with each passing tweet a system that’s far from radically orientated?
Sometimes I get the feeling that no one really knows what higher education is for anymore. Anyone who’s worked in higher ed will have experienced firsthand the problems. But the whole “edu factory” keeps chugging on, as overpaid and inept administrators make poor financial decisions, passing off the problems to inexperienced or misinformed bureaucrats, who hold interminable and unproductive meetings that make Kafka’s The Castle look like a shining model of cooperative efficiency, the only result being that someone decides to pay untold amounts of monies to third-party software companies for yet another app that ends up creating more problems than it solves. Technological solutions to pedagogical problems. That is the 21st-century American university in a nutshell. There are so many apps. Why? There’s an app for admissions, an app for student advising, an app for grading, an app for online learning, an app for meetings, an app for attendance (I have to take attendance, for graduate students!), there’s probably an app for how to use apps, and right now I’m using a “university PR app” which automatically filters out any comments that may negatively impact potential future enrollments or donations (just joking … I hope…).
The result isn’t just a depletion of resources, a lowering of academic standards, or a rise in student debt. It’s something else. It’s a shift in attitude. If education is a business, then it’s part of the service industry, and the students are customers … which, I suppose, means that teachers are customer service. And when times are tight, you downsize. We all know who benefits from this. It isn’t the students.
But all this is pre-pandemic. The pandemic has functioned as an accelerator for the diffuse and already-existing malaise of higher education, particularly in the States. Universities are millions of dollars in the red, this year alone. Are we sure it will all go “back to normal”? No one, it seems, knows what to do. Existing online platforms are poorly designed and have little or no research to back up their promised effectiveness. We all have screen fatigue and have experienced firsthand Zoom’s impressive ability to render anything said or done utterly banal. I’ve been teaching for some time. I come from a family of teachers. And for the first time, part of me feels a little embarrassed. I take what I do seriously, teaching, advising, working with students, putting together a syllabus, helping to shape a thesis or dissertation. But this — it’s like a theater of the absurd. The more they try to simulate a classroom, the more obvious it is that it’s not a classroom. It’s so profoundly disappointing I feel like saying, look, there’s no magic here. We just read books, think about it, and write about it. That’s it. In fact, you can do it yourself. Pandemic or no pandemic, I’ve realized what I really try to do as a teacher is to teach people how to teach themselves. But that takes a lot of patience, perseverance, humility, and a bit of humor. I mean, it matters — but it doesn’t matter.
So, here’s my Black Mirror episode, an edutainment documentary titled “Pedagogy of the Depressed”: As the pandemic becomes the norm, enrollments decrease and endowments are depleted, forcing universities to shut down or have their charters revoked. While employment for those with college degrees decreases, demand for online learning, training, and retraining increases. Many top-ranking American universities sell the intellectual copyright on all class materials and research generated by professors to Arkham Analytica, a subsidiary of Google Scholar (the databases are cross-referenced with Wikipedia, with Amazon bots now as the exclusive contributors). TEDx files a suite of patents which renders proprietary any act of public speaking (inclusive of requiring 1990s headset mics), and partners with newly established YouTube.edu to create Diogenes™, a global online platform for continuing education (or “higher vocation”). The whole platform is driven by the Dōmu AI, a co-development by Cyberdyne Systems and Wintermute Arts for Microsoft Gaming (now owned by Disney). The Diogenes™ platform offers a fully gamified approach to learning, using a Neural Lace VR headset (chip implants optional). This immersive approach to “VR pedagogy” allows student/players to choose from any number of simulated learning environments, such as the Academy of classical Greece, the hallowed halls of Oxford or Cambridge, the futuristic labs of MIT or CalTech, or even the ancient forests of pre-Vedic India. The student/player can choose the learning mode that best fits their needs (options include adventure, FPS, horror, mystery, RPG, RTS, sports, and other genres). Students/players are then presented with a series of educational tasks, embedded within an online, real-time, multiplayer game narrative. (“Solutions” to the tasks can also be bought and sold via linked social media platforms using the cryptocurrency of their choice.) A student/player can also add their own YouTube or Netflix LiveStream channel, so that fans and followers can provide both financial and emotional support. When a student/player has logged the minimum required hours and/or amassed the requisite credits, they are then notified of graduation via email (an official diploma is sent as an animated GIF attachment). Selected graduates are given the option of starting a career working for companies like Cyberdyne or Wintermute Arts, or entering the research sector with top-tier institutes such as Shimago-Dominquez Labs or Global IT Psychoplasmics (both Disney subsidiaries). Described (on Wikipedia) as a “mind-bending, comprehensive approach to virtual learning,” the Diogenes™ platform also comes bundled with Arhat™, a virtual life coach and pharmaceutical assistant developed by Tyrell BioMedia.
Can you tell it’s the end of the semester for me? Given what we seem headed for, what do you say we just abandon this interview? Were these pre-pandemic times, I would offer to buy you a coffee (or a pint) … nevertheless, I think I will have that coffee, and just listen to music and stare at the sky for a while. You?
Maybe we should all just stare at the sky for a while and as you say, simply learn to read again and dream of a time when we didn’t seem to think that life needed saving, especially by technology!
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.