December 26th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

The Miserablist: Thomas Ligotti's Puppet Philosophy

“Man is a self-conscious Nothing.”
      - Julius Bahnsen

"To live is to war with trolls."
     - Henrik Ibsen

In his recent work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race a spectre haunts the very fabric of its fractured pages, a hidden ghost-like presence that is revealed by its pervading absence: the work of the German philosopher Julius Bahnsen. Radoslav A. Tsanoff tells us that at the heart of Bahnen's philosophical system is an irrational "atheistic individualism, a world-view of the meaningless eternally self-tormenting and self-rending chaos of will-forces: a dismal view of a woeful and futile world: miserabilism is a mild name for it. [1] Tsanoff suggest that for Bahnsen the only "pessimism worthy of the name is a pessimism tragically earnest and at the same time grimly humorous: I am a puppet in the hands of Infinite Perversity, and there is absolutely no way out of it, but I know it, and so take the puppet-play in which I take a part with a sense of humor; I laugh at the puller of the strings, and this is my revenge" (362). As another author, Edward Conze, describing the philosophical pessimism of Bahnsen, says, "He describes a world, as it appears and corresponds to a person who does not want to preserve, but who wants to annihilate himself. The person he has in view is so disgusted with life that he annihilates all he does. He simultaneously affirms and denies his self-preservation, he is interested at the same time in his own destruction and in his own preservation." [2] As Ligotti tells us himself, "While Bahnsen does not figure in the following pages, I should say that his negative spirit is nonetheless present in this work, the brunt of which is concerned with how blind we are to the horrors of our existence as well as how adept we have become at sloughing them off" (p. 9). Ligotti offers us two rules of thumb to guide us in our confusion: the first is that "our positive estimate of ourselves and our lives is all in our heads"; and, second, "if you must open your mouth, steer away from argumentation" (p. 10).  

It is this grizzly puppet philosophy with its pessimistic humor of the gallows that marks the spirit of negativity pervading Ligotti's new work. Of humans and puppets he says, "We are somebodies who move freely about and think what we choose. Puppets are not like that. They have nothing in their heads. They are unreal. When they are in motion, we know they are moved by an outside force. When they speak, their voices come from elsewhere. Their orders come from somewhere behind and beyond them. And were they ever to become aware of that fact, they would collapse at the horror of it all, as would we" (p. 11). James Trafford says of puppets in Ligotti's stories that "the puppet figures as the insensate and sub-personal reality hidden beneath the ‘mindless mirrors’ of our naive reality. Puppets function as ‘conduits to the unreal’, through whose agency hallucinatory phenomenality bleeds into a simultaneous concretisation of the oneiric. Life is played out as an inescapable puppet show, an endless dream in which the puppets are generally unaware that they are trapped within a mesmeric dance of whose mechanisms they know nothing, and over which they have no control. ... [the] puppet is not merely an mocking parody of man, it is the unmasking of the animate face of insensate reality, the unveiling of the inexorable mechanics of the personal". [3]

We are victims of our own success, animals who know that they are alive, who invent solutions to impossible threats against veritable extinction and annihilation; governed by the wayward knowledge of our conscious minds we wander through the maze of time like puppets on the strings of a master magician. But the only magical manipulator behind the scenes is the mad philosophy of a disquieting thought: the insidious parody of a dream turned nightmare revealing that there is no one and nothing behind the curtain of being to pull the strings. Instead we are faced with a hyperchaotic universe of which we know nothing more than the rudimentary fragments of a delirious thought. Objects drift among the voids like solitary gods, withdrawn from each other in their own exclusive silence, each in tune with the music of their foreign and domestic neighbors only through the feral savagery of a sensual allure, one that closes the gap between things opening up the horror that is.

As I began thinking about miserablism and the roots of this dark mode I returned to the work Isidre Nonell, a painter of the dark sublime - chronicler of 'the beauty of the horrible'.[4]  He chronicled the sad face of reality, the lives of marginal, solitary gypsy women and other people who lived on the the extreme edge of poverty and dejection. In 1898 after the loss of Cuba and the Phillipines, the last of the Spanish Colonies, he joined in with the early intellectual and artistic movement of poets, writers, and painters that were characterised by their metaphysical pessimism, and a deep seated desire for social and political regeneration. As he chronicled the despair of the poor he saw within their lives an abjectness, a dysphoria tempered by bleak fatalism: cast off from society they seem to accept their fate with sublime indifferance like abondoned objects withdrawn into the silence of their own broken and ruinous interiors, with little or no communication from their neighbors, their eyes vacant and full of black fire turned inward upon an abyss that is pure vacuity; an aesthetic of the black void.

In these dark earthy paintings one is reminded of Lorca's vision of duende. As Christopher Maurer, editor of "In Search of Duende", tells us at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca's vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that "ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head"; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. Lorca tells us the "duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.". He suggests, "everything that has black sounds in it, has duende." (Maurer (1998) pp. ix-xx)


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S.C. Hickman

The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism

You can now download The Speculative Turn as a pdf (Open Access):

Continental philosophy has entered a new period of ferment. The long deconstructionist era was followed with a period dominated by Deleuze, which has in turn evolved into a new situation still difficult to define. However, one common thread running through the new brand of continental positions is a renewed attention to materialist and realist options in philosophy. Among the current giants of this generation, this new focus takes numerous different and opposed forms. It might be hard to find many shared positions in the writings of Badiou, DeLanda, Laruelle, Latour, Stengers, and Zizek, but what is missing from their positions is an obsession with the critique of written texts. All of them elaborate a positive ontology, despite the incompatibility of their results. Meanwhile, the new generation of continental thinkers is pushing these trends still further, as seen in currents ranging from transcendental materialism to the London-based speculative realism movement to new revivals of Derrida. As indicated by the title The Speculative Turn, the new currents of continental philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself. This anthology assembles authors, of several generations and numerous nationalities, who will be at the center of debate in continental philosophy for decades to come.



Essays from:
Alain Badiou
Ray Brassier 
Nathan Brown
Levi Bryant 
Gabriel Catren
Manuel DeLanda 
Iain Hamilton Grant
Martin Hägglund 
Peter Hallward 
Graham Harman
Adrian Johnston
Francois Laruelle
Bruno Latour 
Quentin Meillassoux
Reza Negarestani
John Protevi
Steven Shaviro  
Nick Srnicek
Isabelle Stengers
Alberto Toscano 
Slavoj Žižek

 Authors, editors and contributors

Levi R. Bryant is a Professor of Philosophy at Collin College in Frisco, Texas.  He is the author of Difference and Givenness: Deleuze's Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence as well as a number of articles on Deleuze, Badiou, and Lacanian psychoanalysis.

Graham Harman is Associate Provost for Research Administration at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. He has published the following books: Tool-Being (2002), Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), Heidegger Explained (2007), Prince of Networks (2009), Towards Speculative Realism (2010), L'Objet quadruple (2010), and Circus Philosophicus (2010)

Nick Srnicek is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. He is currently working towards a dissertation on the general dynamics of global political change, specifically focusing on the relations between contentious social movements, civil society organizations and international institutions. He has also published work in Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy and Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy