My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Years of meditating and reading books on philosophy, psychology, years of lucid dreams and night terrors, do not make a person unique. But it is singularly unique to find what feels like your own thoughts reflected back at you when you didn't pen them. As I read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, I had a strange feeling, as if deja vu and vertigo had somehow been blended together. Had I read this before, if I hadn't written it?
Yet that disturbing familiarity regards an utterly useless process. Reading or writing about philosophy has long had a negative connotation in the United States, thanks to a long anti-intellectual culture in some corners. But here the useless, and indeed the negative, have an absolutely finality that have nothing to do with anti-intellectualism. This is ontological uselessness, the nightmare of being.
Ligotti's core thesis — the self as we know it is a contrivance of evolution, self consciousness an accident. To be deceived into thinking we are a self, that's the situation we find ourselves in, without hope of reprieve or reprisal. Of course, he isn't the first pessimist to set pen to paper, but he is the first to do so starkly, with such uncompromising clarity, without back pedaling or that ultimate cop out, the happy ending, “it was all a dream.”
There is a certain intentional irony here, as indeed our waking lives are a type of dream, and the self we grant some sense of ultimate reality is nothing other than a character in that dream. But to the extent anything is real, that dream character's suffering is legitimate.
Our choice as he sees it is simple — self deception, or insanity. He shows us the basis of horror, rooted not in the supernatural beyond, but much closer to home. It stares back at us in the mirror. The supernatural in a sense gives us a glimpse of our own uncanny ghoulishness, without requiring identification with the absolute truth of the matter. We can close the book, and shake off that chill, for after all, it was just a story.
But this is not merely a thought experiment. It isn't satirical hyperbole, like A Modest Proposal. There is no hope or happy ending to soften the blow. Because the game of life is all fixed anyway, it couldn't matter less if you deceive yourself and write this book off as pessimistic belly aching. Whatever it takes to get you through another day, and prop up the illusion that you are a self in the first place.
Although some may argue about what constitutes “serious philosophy” — as Ligotti himself says, he eschews the circuitous argumentation that generally grants a work that unapproachable aura of seriousness — I would argue that this book belongs within any introductory study of nihilism and even post-modernism. To do so I'd like to demonstrate what I mean. Those purely interested in The Conspiracy Against The Human Race may as well stop here, but I believe this claim demands a little context and backtracking. You'll forgive me if I need to broaden the scope to come back to task.
Post modernism and nihilism both are subjects of derision. So many people wave off, dismiss it, or make fun of it, because what? Reason “can't” merely delineate the contours of our prison cell? Our psychology “can't” be the determining factor in our philosophical theories? The world as we know it “can't” just be the product of our narratives about it?
Suffice it to say, I'm not convinced. And neither is Ligotti. According to him, these dismissals are rooted in an underlying fear of pessimism. Even further, that fear may cover up the very existential terror that these theories hope to lay bare, even if it will quickly become clear to any ‘student’ that the effort itself is probably entirely counter-productive.
Another barrier is a sort of pop-cultural understanding of nihilism that throws most people off the scent. For this I need to turn to Vattimo, in a passage of The End of Modernity where he more or less paraphrases Nietzsche, “The project of nihilism is to unmask all systems of reason as systems of persuasion, and to show that logic — the very basis of metaphysical thought — is in fact a kind of rhetoric. All thought that pretends to discover truth is but an expression of the will to power ... of those making the truth-claims over those being addressed by them; in particular, the disinterested, scientific, rational search for the objective, neutral truth of a proposition is an illusion produced by metaphysical thought for its own benefit.”
I would actually specify here that it is the narrative doing this, and it is in the process of making narrative (“sense”) from pure data that this comes about. It's not that there is no objective world or neutral facts, it's that humans are incapable of direct interaction. Everything is mediated. And mediation is where myth/narrative is king. Lyotard defined postmodernism as “skepticism toward all meta-narratives,” and this bookends all these points on the subject, by saying, in essence, that it recognizes we only understand the world through narratives, and it demands we be skeptical of them all.
(My own little mea culpa: this is what I've dedicated like 10 years of work/research to, so I guess you could say I've got some skin in the game.)
The critique of logic that is perhaps most damning comes from Wittgenstein's commentary and later disavowal of his own Tractatus, and how it kind of turned the tables on logical positivism. There is a terrific accounting of that in Wittgenstein's Vienna, possibly one of my favorite works of philosophical history.
More prosaically, it was the project of Enlightenment Reason that postulates “progress”, which underlies all our technology (see Heidegger's essays on tech, such as “The Questions Concerning Technology,” which are even more damning in hindsight of where we are now). Technology is the proverbial case in point of pure logic, at least in itself as a matter of engineering. If not so much how we interact with it, which remains more or less sociological and psychological, logic playing much less of a role in that engagement.
So, we might say nihilism is inherently skeptical of Enlightenment Reason as a project, of progress as a given — and in this regards there's some overlap with many stated postmodern projects (objectives). All are critical of logic as an end in itself, especially as a cultural project, and in this regard Conspiracy fits in quite well. There’s much to be found on this subject in Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, though he'll also wander off topic and rant about jazz music. But he has some good points, despite all that.
These projects are not themselves outside of time, which is maybe one of the ironies of post-modernism as a term. This is the subject of many lengthy works, but in short, nihilism and postmodernism both got much of their manna from the second world war, though the first had really already set that in motion — the massive projects that had promised an idealized Utopian future brought instead war, death, genocide, and then after, the process of man being turned into machine. So the apparent obsession with critique and even, as some have claimed, pessimism within nihilistic and post-modernist philosophies comes as much from the lives of those that created it as any other philosophy.
Again, we come to know and interact with the world only through the meditation of our narratives, and much recent neurological research backs this up. Ligotti deals with this directly, without getting sidetracked in “philosophical quibbling,” and indeed this work stands shoulder to shoulder with other works of this nature. But it seeks to one up them all — because they, and indeed this work as well, are ultimately nothing more than sublimation. Conspiracy will show us the truth, but only by dint of demonstrating that it doesn’t actually matter.
My own issue with much postmodern theory, especially the most pessimistic like Ligotti, is it's much easier to tear down an idea than build a new one. Years of working with this sort of material have left me skeptical of everything, including my own memories. The cost of absolute honesty is ultimately paralysis. Only by having faith in the things we can't know, even in blatant fictions, can we take any action. This too he predicts. But he insists we must distance ourselves with denials or false narratives. There seems little room for Kierkegaardian leaps of faith. Getting out of bed is an act of faith. And, given all the things that might happen, possibly a stupid one. But I still take it.
And that's the only place where we might take some issue with Ligotti’s certainty, one may even call it faith, in futility. And that human, all too human trait is curiosity.
I grant nearly every single premise in Conspiracy, but at the end of day sheer curiosity at what lies behind the next rock keeps us going. This fits into his schema well enough as a form of sublimation, or perhaps mere distraction from the existential truth that we are puppets dancing at the call of some invisible master. Picture Sisyphus happy? Perhaps not. But we can imagine him wandering off to the horizon, just to see what happens next. The only certainty — death — does not undermine the great wealth of uncertainties life gives us along the way.
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