It is hard to review a book that you cannot explain or sum up but especially when it is not one that you can explain or sum up by saying you can neither explain it or sum it up. Michael Cisco’s Member is a book that tests the limits of coherency without appearing to do that.

To get to brass tacks, Member is about a massive planetary-scale game called Chorncendantra that is ‘the human game’ but that involves multiple worlds both real and artificial. Our main character, Mr Thanks, is unexpectedly recruited into the game as a courier to deliver small cans of spells and prizes to a construction site. From there the small absurdities pile up but something at bottom refuses to topple over. It part it may be because the novel starts out as a train of thought but when it stops being that or starts again becomes a challenge to discern: “I will expand the dream to engulf what surrounds me” (7). The indiscernibility between things happening and things being thought pushes Mr Thanks to keep trying to play his part in the game “Relaxing my mind had only brought about a causeless, meaningless sadness” (16) even attempting to ignore the game is playing it. This is the frustation of being a human in the giant system/mechanism of Chorncendantra – one knows one is a human but that this means being a small part of the human machine but not being able to only be a part.

One of the most impressive aspects of Cisco’s novel here is that this does not wander into immediate and obvious existential territory. Mr Thanks, carrying his heavy bag, is not a dreary eyed Frenchman in 1950s Paris: “’Don’t imagine that you are the flaneur,’ I tell myself, ‘looking down on people, like you are the last human in a world of machines the passerby are all soulless robots and you’re the only one who cares—that’s high school shit’” (46). Mr Thanks is mostly just frustrated at the small things and couldn’t know enough about the large things to feel so small simply because there are others that at least seem to know more (so called operationals and high rationals) – high rationals being those creatures that ‘think things up’.

In some regards Cisco could be seen as entering the territory of either William S Burroughs or the graphic novelist Charles Burns – where one quickly leaves ‘this world’ and enters somewhat unreal worlds (interzones and dreamspaces) that are however still attached to this world. And yet Cisco holds the reigns tighter than this. It is the rules of the game or the world themselves that seem parasitic yet completely natural. The attempt at thought to think a world only appears to add to the problem of probing the layers of rules added upon rules till the point that one is not even sure where one is and, for that matter, it is not even clear if the narrator is any more or less sure of what he is doing that what the reader is reading about him.

And of course the wonderfulness of Cisco’s descriptions which are present throughout. For example:

“Perched there, he aims carefully at something I have trouble making out. It’s a large, solid object that seems to be browsing along the sidewalk in its own special darkness; not a blob of shadow exactly, more like a dead, uninteresting haze of grey smoke that collects around it and projects out of it in a reverse spotlight. In overall shape, it resembles a human liver, all covered in imbricated scales. A felty, transparent caul seems to envelop the entire thing, and ripples out wrinkles and folds to palpate its surroundings, making the emitter seem both solid and liquid at once” (44-45). The descriptions shift from weird tale type above to bordering on the romantic: “In that faint, brief light, I see the tendrils of smoke from each little candle immobilized like ectoplasm calligraphy, trailing from the cake” (93-94), to the downright silly: “Somebody left a salad out on the curb, with no bowl around it” (332).

The question becomes less ‘what is happening?’ to ‘why is it that this seems normal?’ The novel flirts again and again with the weirdness of games, of playing them without reasons (170), that the problem is that we enter the game from somewhere or as something not of it (142), that thinking and playing is just a headlong plunge into various kinds of darkness more or less familiar (226). The novel’s restrained but seemingly unrestrained insanity mirrors the very weirdness of belonging to one odd bureaucracy after another. Any attempt of pulling out seems like a childish time out: “That’s what I want: a place in which I have no part. I want to ride through space like wind in wind and sleep on the void, and be a go-between with nothing but between” (258). In so much sci-fi, horror, and weird fiction there is the moment when the narrator passes into the strangeness, where the mundane becomes not the mundane, when you (as the reader) know that they are on a trajectory which ends in death, madness or, optimistically, some small share of triumph. But in Member Cisco’s point is no such prologue exists because of the incessant nature of thought that barrier cannot be recognized – it can only be supposed after the fact when it is already too late. There is no cutting loose.

And while bits of philosophy appear throughout (Spinoza (47), ancient Chinese thought, moments that smell like Heidegger and Deleuze) it would be distasteful to call this a thinker’s or philosopher’s novel (whatever the hell that may mean) but only that, unlike many novels, Member makes a show of when it is pushing at its own limits or trying to catch its own tail. Every practice has its reasons and the reasons do not seem to matter other than to give you a location for your forthcoming injuries. Or, in other words, any attempt at closed precision is absurd..except for that one.

Upcoming Events



For those interested here’s some of the things I’m doing in the next few months:

March 22 11:00AM: As part of the ACLA I’m presenting a paper entitled “The Flint of Prometheus” on the relation between Schelling, Marx, and Geology. At NYU (25 W 4th st, room c16).

March 22 3:00 PM: I’ll be participating in a roundtable in Chelsea as part of Dis Magazine’s Ecology 2 Event. (220 W. 18th St)

March 24th 9Am to 7:30PM: With Ed Keller I’ll be running the Post-Planetary Capital Event at The New School. Facebook group. Eventbrite registration. (Wollman Hall 66 West 12th Street 5th floor)

(March 25th 6:30: And of course I’ll be attending Ray Brassier and Reza Negarestani’s event on functionalism).

April 12th: I’ll be presenting a paper as part of Anthropocene Feminism on gender and geophilosophy in Schelling.

April 26-27: I’ll be giving lectures as part of The Congress of Pessimism in Bucharest. Hosted by the incomparable Bureau of Melodramatic Research.

April 29th: I’ll be presenting a paper on True Detective for the True Detection event in Dublin as part of Darklight.

May 1-31: I’ll be presenting at several events in Ireland in conjunction with Teresa Gillespie. Details Forthcoming…

Following from my last two posts (1 and 2) I have argued that German Idealism (and this is a fairly common observation) is a non-substantial monism by which the philosopher is set up as a figure of navigation having absorbed skepticism and the subsequent self-conditioning, to create or synthesize in a way that has global ramifications. Or, to put it more directly, German Idealism attempts to organize levels of abstraction in order to approach not the thing in-itself but that which is maximally stable, what can be taken as the objective. It is not surprising that the German Idealists were so interested in mathematics (Fichte was especially taken with geometry, Schelling with algebra and arithmetic as infinite series, and Hegel with logic) given their investment in the construction of construction as such. The issue becomes, as with any navigational model, whether the fascinations or foci of these thinkers tip them into the realm of a strong ontology/correlationism or is the ambit or targeting of these particulars what ultimately adds up to a incomplete universality? If there’s a gap between the weak ontologies of Meillassoux and Badiou it is that the unexpected of the future generates in such a sense that the past becomes immune from the instanciation of conditions. Related is Zizek’s ontological signification of the ‘blank X’ of the subject discussed in part 1. Given the activity of the self-conscious shared ,albeit differently aligned, by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, this erases the work required to reach that self voiding which is not ontological so much as it is pragmatic. As Schelling writes in Über die Nature der Philosophie als Wissenschaft or “On the Nature of Philosophy as a Science (1821):

“Those, then, who want to find themselves at the starting point of a truly free philosophy, have to depart even from God. Here the motto is: whoever wants to preserve it will lose it, and whoever abandons it will find it. Only those have reached the ground in themselves and have become aware of the depths of life, who have at one time abandoned everything and have themselves been abandoned by everything, for whom everything has been lost, and who have found themselves alone, face-to-face with the infinite: a decisive step which Plato compared with death. That which Dante saw written on the door of the inferno must be written in a different sense also at the entrance to philosophy: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’ Those who look for true philosophy must be bereft of all hope, all desire, all longing. They must not wish anything, not know anything, must feel completely bare and impoverished, must give everything away in order to gain everything. It is a grim step to take, it is grim to have to depart from the final shore.”

Continue reading ‘The Trajectories of German Idealism (3)’

Following from my last post I want to argue that German Idealism is a project that takes the genesis of the abstract as engine and problem for philosophical practice and for practice taken more generally. Assuming Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel accept Kant’s critique of dogmatic metaphysics but want to evade his methodological dualism as a stopping point, then they must appeal to a kind of non-naive structuralism but one that is generative (or genetic as the literature often puts it) thus the importance of mathematics and logic for each of them albeit differently manifested. The nature of their go-to concepts are thus situated and powered by argumentation crafted in the fires of skepticism: for Fichte it is the ‘magic circle’ of consciousness, for Schelling it is the derivation of ideality from nature, and for Hegel it’s the labor of spirit or consciousness across the charred fields of history. To relate this to Quentin Meillassoux’s well-worn critique of correlationism it is perhaps unsurpising that German Idealism marks the historical tipping point from weak (that there may be things in themselves but we cannot directly access them) to strong (there are no things in themselves and we only have access to the relation between subject and object) correlationism.

I would argue that the generic orientation shared by German Idealist thinkers of a skepticism-hardened abstraction is not a historical triviality (one would think their influence alone would question this) especially given the penchant (particularly in a certain strain of French theory) for weak ontologies. In many sense weak ontology is simply the positivized inverse of Meillassoux’s weak correlationism. Rather than attempting to reestablish the ground for a scientifically updated epistemology, weak ontology seems to take for granted that being is charged with a certain kind of knowability – that epistemology is branded with a Kantian sterility not worth repeating.

Continue reading ‘The Trajectories of German Idealism (2)’

I recently read two reviews of recent books on German Idealism. The first was a review by Dean Moyar of Brady Bowman’s fascinating sounding Hegel and the Metaphysics of Absolute Negativity while the second was Sebastian Gardner’s review of Markus Gabriel’s Transcendental Ontology (which has been out for a while but only recently released in paper back). Both of these reviews start, as many do, with a grand overview of German Idealism. Moyar notes the metaphysical vs non-metaphysical interpretations of Hegel (presumably within the analytic tradition only) where Pippin’s Hegel’s Idealism (1989) begins the non-metaphysical strand where more recent texts (such as Bownman’s) represent a metaphysical counter-attack. Describing Pippin’s book Moyar writes:

“On this reading Hegel largely accepted Kant’s critique of rationalist metaphysics, and thus couldn’t possibly be a traditional metaphysician himself. Pippin showed how Hegel’s project of constituting the world through logic could be read as an attempt to demonstrate that the conditions of the possibility of our thinking of objects are the conditions of the possibility of the objects themselves.”

This rather innocuous sounding passage struck me as an example of analytic and continental philosophers passing one another without communication like ships in the night, Isn’t it taken for granted that what German Idealism was (viewed as a continental philosopher whatever that means) exactly metaphysics after Kant, of accepting Kant’s critiques yet pursuing monism due to dissatisfaction with Kantian dualism (whether methodological or otherwise construed). This is not a controversial claim as it has been argued both that German Idealism was just Kantian philosophy inflated or Kantian philosophy broken (having run through the door that Kant wanted to only peak through as the saying goes). But given this missed communication, what are we to make of a revived interest in Hegel in both analytic and continental camps given that the former is due, at least in part, to a Strawson/McDowell fueled socialization of structural non-givenness on the one hand, and a Zizek/Badiou inspired return to metaphysics in the name of stalled Marxist politics on the other.

Continue reading ‘The Trajectories of German Idealism or The Necessity of Stratified Abstraction (1)’

Jon Cogburn has posted a nice things to look for kind of post (but more thoughtful than that really) in regards to continental philosophy. The texts that he links to confirm some broader issues that I (and others) have been circling around recently:

1 – The legacy of Hegel as something more than a theory of the subject or as lofty idealist. Part of this involves pushing past Zizek (I think) and looking at Hegel’s uptake in analytic thought as it relates to the political use of Hegel via the Philosophy of Right in continental circles. German Idealism and the neurosciences is something I hear more and more about from grad students as well.

2 – What in the hell does idealism mean? I think Iain Grant and Markus Gabriel’s work will continue to make interesting inroads in this direction and show how the construal of idealism as ‘naive’ is a dead horse that Marxists and Deleuzians have been beating for too long. As Cogburn points out this means addressing closely the British Idealists and the transition from German Idealism to neo-Kantianism as well.

3 – As a corollary to the idealism issue I think what exactly Platonism is (especially in relation to idealism) is something that Badiou has kicked up that Brassier and Grant and others have addressed. That Platonism has a stake in ‘what is not’ (as Markus Gabriel has discussed as well) gives a critical edge to it that disturbs the long-held characterizations of Plato and of philosophies of negativity.

4 – Lastly I think interesting work will happen addressing the difference between ‘weak ontologies’ (such as Badiou, Meillassoux, and Tristan Garcia) and epistemology. There’s quite a bit of interesting cross overs between French thought and analytic thought which will continue to move in interesting ways.

So a few things in the pipeline that I thought folks may be interested in:

January: Three short texts I’m working on should appear soon. This first is my response to a three person review of On an Ungrounded Earth by Kai Bosworth, Harlan Morehouse, and Rory Rowan. The review is to appear in Society and Space. The second text is a short piece on medieval theories of motion as they relate to design for the journal TAG. I am also writing and afterword for a collection coming out from Punctum on Capitalism and the Earth.

February: I’ll be presenting at the conference Animacies in Milwaukee as part of the 2014 MIGC. My talk is going to be on Schelling and motion broadly as it relates to thought and animal movement.

March: I’m presenting at the ACLA in NYC on a panel titled Alien Capital. My paper will be on Schelling’s Prometheanism as it relates to mining and geophilosophy. Following the conference I am organizing a one-day event with Ed Keller on Post-Planetary Capital. Several interesting speakers for that event! I am also hoping to attend an event in Vancouver…details forthcoming!

April: I will be back in Milwaukee for the C21 annual conference on Anthropocene Feminisms.

A few publications will be coming out during these months as well but the timeline for those is pretty uncertain at the moment. Prismatic Ecologies was just released and I have essays in a Deleuze collection as well as a Lacan and Posthumanism collection.

One of things that troubles me about the prometheanism of accelarationism is the relation between one’s materials and the possibility ( to say nothing of the trajectory) of escape. Is it mainly a means of efficent breach – of leaving the ruinous mold of the earth behind after we’ve paid our due, or is it a question of responsibility to maintaining the possible generacity of those grounds in other directions and, if so, to what extent? Is this the tension of gravity, of escaping the traphole of the Earth, with the distributive tension of the surface materials? The future is out there and/or the future is already here but unevenly distributed.

It would seem to be a betrayal on all sides is necessary to escape the gravity well of the near-exhausted earth. Ben Singleton’s recent talk about Maximum Jailbreak at the CTM points out there is now a strange alliance between asteroid miners and radical ecologists in that resource limitation because a local concern that can be overcome by escaping to Mars or other locations for instance taking Krafft Ehricke‘s extraterrestrial imperative ie that there are not limits to growth or, by connection to human creativity. The infinitude of creativity is the assertive upswing of X’s essay on the importance of philosophy for artificial intelligence – that creativity is a central enigma. Yet we have this recent essay on the business of creativity, of creativity swallowed up by the businessification of creativity in the guru figure.

So with Prometheus we also have Kubernetes the navigator, a navigator who is perhaps a ‘bad navigator’ because he never tries to go back (or cannot find his way back). Thinking is nature’s way of optimizing itself through maximal self-modeling by perforating nature with thought. But what does this mean for thought and nature taking the proliferation of technologies as the killing floor of concepts?

This past weekend I attended several keynotes and panels at the Apps and Affect conference organized by my friend Svitlana Matviyekno as well as Nandita Biswas-Mellamphy, Nick Dyer-Witherford, and others. It is not surprising that based on the topic that many discussions centered around technological determinism, gamification, and ubiquitous computing as tool for capitalist domination. Discussions of gamification and work seemed to be dividable by the concept of navigation – as navigation is not as brainless as both competitors. Ed Keller, much to my manic glee, stated that artificial design tells us more and more about the weirdness of nature and that there is, in the end, no separating intelligence (or humanity as reasoners) from nature. Patricia Clough (following Luciana Parisi) called for an end to the crude opposition of quantities and qualities (echoing some of the theme’s of Reza’s talk here back in March in reference to magnitudes). In a related vein, Alexander Galloway called for a better understanding of compression and a tactics of withdrawal given the seemingly inseparable mess of Deleuzian networks and capital.

If it is time to stop broadly bemoaning the ‘enframing’ or otherwise frightening aspects of technology for the sake of it, then as I mentioned before the task is one of picking a good fiction – a good fiction for collective action whether geo-engineering or the colonization of Mars is needed. But the collective fictions are doomed to be post-ideological capital – we know what we are doing but we do it anyway, or just doomed (ecological collapse, post-apocalyptic porn etc). This is punctuated by the assertion that we are all only collective in an alone together sense – we collective act to advertise that we are alone, or unique, or what have you. On the one hand I’d like to think (too optimistically) that so called ‘being alone together’ could train us to do labor in isolation – to be on long treks through space or in strange work environments for the sake of geo-engineering: being along-together as the prerequisite for distributed collectivity. What is the way to evacuate the narratives and find a pragmatic tool-based collectivization that is not merely us distracted by the tools themselves?


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