Thoughts on Ligotti’s Conspiracy against the Human Race
Ligotti’s triumphantly negative text is a philosophical, ethical, and aesthetic probing into the non-place that humans occupy in an indifferent universe. Ligotti’s touchstones range from Schopenhauer, to Nietzsche, to Zapffe to contemporaries such as David Benatar and Metzinger while also discussing classical, gothic, and weird fiction. Ligotti also touches on less expected topics such as Buddhism, Terror Management Theory and Nature. To say that I enjoyed the text would be an understatement and Ligotti makes some interesting remarks not only about horror but also human thought as it relates to nature and horror.
One figure which I knew nothing of, and whose work would seem closest in spirit to Ligotti’s (except for perhaps Zapffe) is that of Julius Bahnsen. Bahnsen, an almost totally unknown disciple of Schopenhauer, even further radicalized the will while exploring the complexities of psychology and its warping by a cold world of surging volatility. Conspiracy first takes off with a quote from Bahnsen: “Man is a self-conscious nothing” (13). Ligotti describes Bahnsen’s universe as driven by “purposeless self mutilation” and describes nature as “chaos at feast” (14).
Ligotti’s text becomes an exploration of these two poles – the nothingness of humans problematized by self-consciousness and the harshness of nature troubled by the illusion of freedom. Since the conspiracy which Ligotti seeks to dispel is optimism (or perhaps more accurately the negation or refusal of pessimism) crystallized in the phrase “being alive is alright” (20) it is necessary that he shows that the coupling of pessimism-realism is not as forced as optimism-realism.
Following Zapffe Ligotti argues that consciousness is a mistake of nature (23-27) as self-consciousness gives us knowledge of death as well as the fact that we are merely meat-puppets or “freaks of chance” (33). This knowledge, according to Ligotti, sets us against nature. He writes:
“One would think that nature was trying to kill us off or get us to suicide ourselves once the blunder of consciousness came upon us. What was nature thinking? We tried to anthropomorphize it, to romanticize it, to let it into our hearts. But nature kept its distance, leaving us to our own devices [...] Once we settle ourselves off-world, we can blow up this planet from outer space. It’s the only way to be sure its stench will not follow us” (79-80).
For Ligotti nature deserves no pardon for its introduction of pain (a judgement which Metzinger comes to at the ethical conclusion of The Ego Tunnel – arguing that we should not produce artificial life as we would be spawning brain-damaged and suffering entities). But Ligotti’s (like Lovecraft’s) invocation of nature is unclear. While Ligotti argues that the word life should be replaced with existence (41) he nonetheless seems to equate life with nature. He separates nature from the inorganic (79) and states that nature plants ideas in us (125) and yet our thoughts are productive in a way which, at least in Ligotti’s text, is unnatural. The fact that we have the capacity to destroy the planet and spit in nature’s face (as Ligotti seems to suggest) would buttress the unnatural status of thought. This problem is at the center of the epistemological difference between Iain Grant and Ray Brassier.
Ligotti further qualifies this division in the following:
“The most uncanny of creaturely traits, the sense of the supernatural, the impression of a fatal estrangement from the visible, is dependent upon our consciousness, which merges the outward and the inward into a universal comedy without laughter. We are only chance visitants to this jungle of blind mutations. The natural world existed when we did not, and it will continue to exist long after we are gone. The supernatural crept into our life only when the door of consciousness was opened in our heads. The moment we stepped through that door, we walked out on nature” (211).
What exactly Ligotti means here is left a bit ambiguous. In a related footnote Ligotti states wish that an egghead would admit to the fact that the universe is throughly unimpressive. Ligotti, like Lovecraft, is making the wager that knowledge, in and of itself, is harmful to people yet, with the construction of the self, we enthusiastically ignore the puppet strings of fate, nature, etc. How knowledge becomes malignant enough to break the epistemological circle that being alive is alright colors all encounters thereon out, is not clear. Lovecraft’s academics are consistently mind-obliterated by encounters with fanged noumena, the Real, the uncanny etc. but this assumes a certain openness, an openness which the band aid ‘being alive is alright’ pre-heals.
Ligotti attempts to tackle this problem before it manifests itself in the introduction – that optimism or the statement that ‘being alive is alright’ is an attitude to avoid paradoxes – that humans are naturally naturalists, that horror (or at least supernatural horror) disturbs us because it plays what should not be against what should be (17-18). But here Ligotti assumes that horror is ultimately metaphysical which while seeming to circumvent the problem of the epistemological circle, still does not adequately diagram the relation of negative thoughts to positive thoughts in terms of experience ie how does metaphysical negativity manifest itself in the thought production of human beings if this horror is separate from both humans and nature?
Ligotti further elaborates:
“Everywhere around us are natural habitats, but within us is the shiver of startling and dreadful things. Simply put: We are not from here. If we vanished tomorrow, no organism on this planet would miss us. Nothing in nature needs us [...] We have no business being in this world. We move among living things, all those natural puppets with nothing in their heads. But our heads are in another place, a world apart where all the puppets exist not in the midst of life but outside it [...] We are crazed mimics of the natural prowling about for a peace that will never be ours. And the medium in which we circulate is that of the supernatural, a dusky element of horror that obtains for those who believe in what should be and should not be. This is our secret quarter. This is where we rave with insanity on the level of metaphysics, fracturing reality and breaking the laws of life” (221-222).
Ligotti is clear on one thing – the supernatural belongs to the productivity of human minds, without human beings the supernatural disappears. How this capacity relates to nature, once we are on the course of speculation, is unclear other than the fact that its formation is an accident of nature. If thinking is supernatural, can this supernatural thinking think the natural or is it only the emergence of thinking that is natural and that, from that point on, thinking only constructs a world (correlationism)?
If horror is more real than we are (182), if horror is metaphysical, than horror permeates nature structurally, then ideation is horror unbound, as Brassier’s thinking is transcendentally bound to nothing, Ligotti’s thinking is bound to the horror of thought’s emergence which we can think only as evolving from an unknown darkness – thought can only be thought as thought, as our means towards relating to what thinks, to thoughts, and to what is outside of thought. In Ligotti’s world however, it is difficult to know whether reality lives between thought-as-horror and metaphysics-as-horror.
To end with one of my more favorite quotes: “You always told yourself that this was the natural way of things and that you could submit to it because you belonged to nature…MALIGNANTLY USELESS nature, which coughed you up like a little phlegm from its great lungs”(223).
Filed under: Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, ligotti, Meillassoux, nature, ontology | 2 Comments
Tags: bahnsen, dark vitalism, negativity, Nietzsche, pessimism, Schopenhauer, Zapffe