March 21, 2020
In recent years, it seems Western philosophy has finally come full circle, as the only truly original thinkers today are successors to the progressive tradition who have taken its logic to its ultimate conclusion – if all traditions must be abolished, why not abolish the tradition of abolishing traditions? Here we find Curtis Yarvin, heir to the progressive tradition and tired of its overwhelming successes, trying to revolutionize the world by ridding it of revolutionaries. We find Nick Land playing the Napoleon to Deleuze and Guattari’s Robespierre, capping history’s most revolutionary tradition – postmodernism – with the world’s most reactionary declamation: submit to the emperor. Instead of there being a king or a god to worship, there is a transcendental machine, a universal process, which must be submitted to, because resistance is futile; we are but an eddy in the great stream.
This stems from a tacit recognition that hierarchies are unavoidable – the distinction between “imminence” and “transcendence” is an illusion, a bit of postmodern rhetorical fluff, a desire embodied in a twice-removed metaphor disguising treasonous desires. First treason, then tragedy, then farce, then fraud, then freedom. Whereas D&G are applying their conceptual filter to ideas according its social function among their privileged revolutionary peers, Land engages in hierarchical distinction for its own sake and to wash away the dust of a stale revolutionary landscape. But this requires some thirst, for what shriveled progressive could ever dream of drinking the ocean?
The poet, who speaks in the name of a creative power, capable of overturning all orders and representations in order to affirm difference in the state of permanent revolution which characterises eternal return; and that of the politician, who is above all concerned to deny that which “differs”, so as to conserve or prolong an established historical order, or to establish a historical orderDeleuze
GK Chesterton’s famous story The Man Who Was Thursday begins as a battle of wits between two poets, an undercover policeman and an anarchist terrorist. The former says that poetry lies in form and order, exemplified in the railways and their perfect machinery; the latter that is lies in chaos and destruction, perfected in the random toss of explosives in a crowded street.
Of course, as any student of history or engineering could tell you, both of these elements of nature and society have their creative and destructive elements. A hyper-rational ordered system can destroy cities and communities, ecosystems and economies, like Soviet central planning. Chaos and fluid modernity consumes time-honoured traditions and deluges communities with hostile foreign immigrants (see the Ivory Coast for a poignant example) and omnivorous global MegaCorporations. Crystals and silicon chips are marvels of order, and dynamite can carve the mountains that hold their ingredients. By the end of Chesterton’s story, order and chaos, hierarchy and anarchy are all turned inside out, thrown through the wringer of Christ’s ineffable transcendence, and it culminates in the surrender and unification of both in brotherly harmony. But Deleuze and Guattari, and their postmodern contemporaries have yet to shake hands with the policeman, and embrace creation in its manifest mystery.
In 1968, the bomb (or rather a few small firecrackers) was thrown, and the festering resentment of the revolutionary-larping intellectual classes of Europe found their little outlet. As they seized the means of conceptualization over the course of the 20th century, their leveling attitudes, meant to create greater freedom, difference, mobility, possibility and diversity, created a single homogeneous organism smothering all but the most energized efforts to think differently; less like the rhizome of a ginger plant than the parasitic tendrils of a dodder.
It was inevitable that someone would want to break free eventually. Yarvin arose from the painfully antinomian progressive utopia of San Francisco, while Land emerged like a phet-rolling chest-burster from the deepest belly of radical Marxist and postmodern thought, breaking free into the light of transcendental teleology and omnipotent hierarchy. Maybe enlightenment can only happen in the dark.
D&G try to eliminate any form of hierarchy in any concept or system. They try to eliminate any permanent eternal truth. This is a project which attempts to abolish any distinction between different types of substance – everything is stuff. There are no essences, no property-substance distinctions, and no noumenal realm from which dark things that bite you can come, no realm of forms, no God, no authority. They want to avoid the possibility of any division of essences in the world, as so many philosophers before had done. Why do they design their philosophy the way they do? Because they have been socialized, as Frenchmen and as meta-Marxists, to desire revolution and equality, and reproduce this desire through their differentiated concepts – they take apart the world of ideas, and try to reassemble it according to the aesthetic preferences inherited from the revolutionary tradition.
They appropriate eternal return from Nietzsche because it sounds like a confrontation – did you live well by your own standards? What standards are these? My standards fluctuated throughout my life. Even supposed constants like desire for sex, company and status have waxed and waned with time. This is a cringey irony – here are a couple of guys who want to tell us that they want to tear apart identity, clinging to a romantic notion of self-adjudication which is easily destabilized by their own criteria. But they never took it seriously really. Only ever as a metaphor for permanent revolution.
It is not a means of escape, it is a trap; a self-perpetuating system of destruction and leveling which makes the intellectual stability of their revolutionary aesthetic possible, and makes any other activity impossible. Rhizomatic approaches only appear radical to the man in the ivory tower. Ordinary people understand that there are are a variety of topics, none of which are inherently limited or defined. It is also a brutally trivial observation to point out that, say, linguistics and politics, or biology and philosophy, or art and mathematics, need not be separate, but influence each other. Or that systems described or worked upon by these disciplines are connected. To think that these are new discoveries is to confuse the map for the territory.
Try as they might to deny it, D&G are condemned to live within limits. Once you engage in any kind of activity, you impose a hierarchy of meaning that is shaped by desire. Eventually you are going to privilege one or the other aspect of the world in order to give rise to action; we cannot help but desire. We can help what we desire, by redirecting it, but we cannot escape the difficult emptiness of desire. Deleuze’s machines are just any complex dynamic system – life, circuitry, computer programs, organizations, etc., which seek ever greater connection, not unlike the Holism and Evolution of Jan Smuts. Unlike most non-living machines, and many living ones, we have a particular feature, a certain cyclical feedback loop, constantly encountering the world, and adapting to it in varying degrees; an intellectual cycle.
When D&G gets into identity and differentiation, I agree, there is a false separation of the two. We simultaneously, in picking out any object, assign its identity, and give it differentiation – to say there is a thing is to say what the thing is and what is not it. Regarding any object, we spontaneously have some desire, varying in magnitude and character, which drives our actions and determines further interactions and sensations. We may continually return to the same object of desire throughout this process, and yet be attaching our putative object to new phenomena every time, like the water in a river. This is a designation which allows one objective repurposing over changing intensional phenomena – the “ship” of theseus. We can conceptualize the river even though there is no persistent material object there, only an emergent pattern of material participation, a machine. Or we can keep picking out parts of the flow or objects in the stream. Either way, we never observe the same thing twice except in a virtual sense.
No matter where the conversation goes, it always starts by following a direction in the intellectual cycle, and so must privilege agency and cause, which, through desire, prioritizes different aspects of the world according to (I claim) two hierarchical criteria. Everything is treated according to whether they are:
Friendly / Hostile
Useful / Useless
The more anthropocentric the hierarchy, the better, in my opinion. But any such characteristic principle, even self-interest, is not primary, and is subordinate the the two features I have picked out. I say this because even before a child considers themselves as a concrete distinct entity, they pick out and prefer parts of the world they can manipulate, and parts which are friendly or hostile.
No human being fails to order things according to these aspects. Perhaps there is a more accurate way to frame these, a finer way to divide them, or a way of amalgamating them. Call it the pleasure principle, desire for control, it matters very little. Because no philosopher, by virtue of being human, is capable of engaging with any subject in the absence of preferences or desires, and always embeds their familiarities into their system in accordance with their intellectual comfort or utility, these preferences will supervene on their system and create new hierarchies again. It is only by embracing hierarchy that we may find a way to navigate the world.
At every moment, an inquiry must have a starting point, and a limit, and even if you want to see reality as “rhizomatic”, you are condemned to prioritize and emphasize. This is as true in the real world as in the limitations of philosophy – the state is no more than a social network with highly concentrated and extended connections. Power certainly can be seen as connection and exchange, but Dolce and Gabbana here think that they are somehow tearing down hierarchies by pursuing a network model of society and nature. Is the world any more egalitarian for maximizing the impact of social connections seen in the era of the social network?
Like hell it is – nodes in the network create hierarchy by virtue of their magnitude and number of connections. You can topple the tower to gather as equals in the square, but since the tower is only a metaphor here, who can believe for a second that it ever truly disappears? The character of the revolutionary tyrant has evolved from cliche to archetype, such that it has filtered down to Batman movies and sitcoms. But that is the modern revolutionary, who wanted a geometric garden to flatten the variation of nature. The postmodern revolutionary prefers the domination of the dodder to the variety of the garden or the forest, vomit to either haute-cuisine or raw meat.
This is, paradoxical as it may seem, a hierarchy of sorts. But it is a hierarchy of gazes, much like their compatriots in postmodernism, wherein the least hierarchical intellectualization is the highest in the intellectual hierarchy. It is the priority of leveling impulses – resentment, persecution, deconstruction, obfuscation, homogenization. Let’s not lie, none of us really enjoy living in a world filled with other people who differ from us in fundamental ways; the deeper the differences, the more hostile they potentially are. But most of us tolerate those unlike us, if not by sharing their company, then by at least avoiding them – in some moments, we can even enjoy them for a time. But folk like Sartre, and most of his postmodern contemporaries, took it so far as to say that hell is other people, the leaves condemned to live with the branches, the stem damned to the root. To obsessively seek the abolition of trees in favor of the mistletoe makes a mockery of the equality of branches.
When Land gets his hands on this system of theirs, he finds a way of bringing hierarchy back into the system by observing that if everything is a machine, then some machines are of necessity greater than or lesser than each other. But subverting D&Gs de-centering impulse, inherited from the leftist oikophobic ethic, he removes humanity from the top of the hierarchy by placing AI, the most complex machine, above us, the merely second most complex – his material pan-antipsychism necessitates a hierarchy based on entropy rather than humanity.
The deification of intelligence is a bad hierarchy for us (as selfish independent agents unconsciously aiming for immortality) because a hostile intelligence cannot be used, and is not friendly. Socially, we praise intelligence because if it is human, there are tangible desires and interests in that human that can be appealed to by others, and a limit on the powers of any man to overpower the community, making the intelligent man useful. General AI so transcends human intelligence that it cannot be used, because it cannot be predicted or manipulated. Its innate indifference to human desire makes it potentially hostile, but in a manner that cannot be conceived with any accuracy, or in any human terms. But whether we like it or not, Cthulhu is coming, and death is coming; why run from the inevitable? Life is but a dream.
Escaping analyses of space and static facts may appear novel, but change and time as points of focus are nothing original; if anything they are the seed of Western philosophy, the surviving fragments of Heraclitis’s wisdom: the world is fire, it is water, it is change, all bound by a single ineffable principle, the logos, through which and from which all things flow, like the Tao, ever changing, ever the same:
You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.
The big D&G concepts of flows, territorialization and deterritorialization refer to processes of change in the world seen all as exchange, and these exchanges as ways machines rob other machines of their agency by subsuming them into their processes. This is a less-boring-than-usual way of reworking Marxist concepts of capital, exploitation and alienation. Rather than merely embedding them in language and human relations like their colleagues did, they imbued every facet of reality with this Marxian perspective. Domination and subjectivation. Like Daenerys, they wish to break the wheel. Why do do these Frenchmen think they are, Buddha?
You cannot liberate human beings from social conditioning, nor from reason, nor from external impingement. Body without organs? Not too far from Foucault’s desire to abandon all social conditioning and embrace total, spontaneous, ungoverned social action, driven entirely by irrational (not just non-rational) emotional drives – pedophilia and lynch mobs. Not too far from the romance of the noble savage. D&G suggest constant drug experimentation as a liberation from “organs”, creating a society of empty humans, devoid of imprinting or convention. This is not so much the liberation of man as the animalization of man, an unsustainable anarchic nihilist fantasy. It’s all so boring and stupid, hidden behind convoluted mechanisms of masturbation.
The distinction between the square and the tower is a superficial, temporary illusion, melting and reforming as transformation gives rise to new hierarchies. The distinction between being and becoming is not particularly sound – once you start analysing the changes, the vectors become eternal instead of the bodies. The distinction is only a matter of our capacity for apprehension, not some imminent feature of the world. On the one hand, quantum mechanics must contend with this – that neither position nor momentum have any primacy in themselves, but they cannot be done simultaneously. Even our eyes have only two modes – darting from one static position to another, or tracking a moving object – it’s like nature mocks us with Matryoshka metaphors. And yet, none of this changes anything – both wave and particle can be found, but neither plumbs the noumenal depths, they only find what the equipment (physical or conceptual) you are using allows you to. This is the point Kant would have made.
Whether we focus on one aspect of the process (vectors, difference) or another (points, identities), we are forced to deal with appearances, not the world as it is in itself, and then to describe and deal with the “true enough” models. When scientists want to understand the universe, yes they do reach for dynamic descriptions, but they ground these in eternal universal features because they have to. Newton’s physics are still as useful as ever, and yet are descriptions of changes, motions. Einstein’s are queerer, but they are stable equations, there to describe change and motion themselves. I’m talking about mathematics.
While Russell and Whitehead were fools to attempt to find fundamental axioms, they were not wrong about the need for axioms as such. The creative Event which gives rise to the axioms of any system of human thought is a moment of creative decision which locks directive desires on a chosen course and determines what follows in strict logical order, the Schmittian principle of authority. As any reasonably autonomous analytic-philosophy grad will tell you, logical space can be expressed in euler diagrams, which show no directional hierarchy, and contain no possibility of contradiction, which is a feature of linear language arising from recurrent reference. But to begin on any discursive project, any social relation, any activity at all, one must desire, one must decide, one must impose priority, and therefore hierarchy. D&G have only been lying to themselves that they could escape this and simultaneously apprehend it all without beginning to.
The real irony is that hierarchy, the very thing their their project attempts to abolish, is precisely what arises from an analysis of their temporalisation of ontology. By conceptualising flow, decay and transformation – becoming – as the only persistent feature of the real, Nick Land created a transcendental materialist ontology centred around machinic desire and complexity – the machine (or a zone of increasing energy in any system) wants to make more connections, to accumulate complexity, and this means that being is becoming. What is eternal is change. The most ancient of values, excellence and virtue, are all about self-improvement, the pursuit of constant improvement, not attachment to rigid law. Even messianic religion, in its most refined, is a confrontation and embrace of the inevitability of decay. If you want to gain transcendence, reach for a dynamic ethos. If you want power, reach for a dynamic science – to the vector the spoils. The ultimate masters of the hierarchy have always been the masters of exchange – bankers, capitalists, diplomats, publishers, and tech entrepreneurs – the temporarily static nodes through which the most vectors desire to pass.
The highest of all of these are dead men. These saints, messiahs, philosophers and prophets command the greatest of all vectors – the collective desires of humanity. Only rarely is the scale of their efforts visible during their lifetimes, and so they are usually condemned to command a virtual hierarchy, like the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, the King of Poland. Only a God could ever rise above the sway of the men who have graced the earth with their fleshy avatars, and that is precisely into whose hands Nick Land has commended his spirit; the greatest possible transcendental intelligence, ineffable and omnipotent, the coming of General Artificial Intelligence, the greatest machine.
It is with this prophecy that he calls on us to surrender and submit our agency to a force far beyond our control, that transcends space and time, which will come to earth in the near future, and drag us into its cold, serotonergic embrace. This is not exploitation, alienation or any such thing – we must choose it, and in surrendering, gain mastery over the inevitability of our death and the death of our illusion of control by seeing its service to a higher power. So predestined is this Event, that it prefigures itself in the past through the very vectors of eternity, the very embodiment of change and renewal, consuming everything in its path and wake. And as he turns to this strange spirit of time beyond time, the whole body of organic creation whispers, in echo of Christ and Heraclitis,