The (Im)Personality of Death

The (Im)Personality of Death

The following is an edited version of a talk given

 at the launch of The Living and the Dead, 2017

 

This book, The Living and the Dead, came from various places and various trajectories. It is a book that is at once intensely personal and intensely impersonal. And in saying this, that it is both personal and impersonal, I don’t simply mean to be obtuse.

 

It is an impersonal book in as much as it is written in a style and using a form of language that is somewhat opaque. It engages with abstract theory and philosophy to probe a question that all of us must confront at various times in our lives— that is the question of death. And in this dimension, we could say, the language is in fact far less opaque than the subject matter. For as I suggest in the opening pages the inevitability of death ensures that the very conditions of our becoming, the conditions in which we live, are inescapably intertwined with the unknowable. I don’t just mean the unknown, but also the unknowable. And this fact is a challenge to a certain form of arrogance, an arrogance that insist that we are masters of our own lives, our own agency, our environment, our economy, our technology. It is a form of contemporary arrogance that proposes that all can be explained if only the correct pieces of information are obtained. It proposes, or at least acts as though, our absolute knowledge is only a matter of time and measurement.

 

The question of death challenges such an attitude by presenting each person with their own mortality and alongside it their own short-sightedness. This is one dimension of death, a dimension discussed by Heidegger and existentialism extensively, and it’s a dimension that will always remain personal—that is the death of individuals. But equally the question of death is intensely impersonal. It is the question of how the living are always already conditioned by the dead, of how the non-living form the world into which we find ourselves thrown. Of how there is always something beyond the limits of a given life, which constitutes it. Of how we are suspended in systems, systems such as capital, technology, language and culture, which inescapably form the basis of our lives. In this sense, we are always already at the mercy of the dead.

Death and the Storyteller

Death and the Storyteller

Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Storyteller 1 has been widely celebrated for many decades now. And yet amidst that celebration I have come across little direct or focused engagement with the position death plays within Benjamin’s considerations. 2 It is an understandable omission, as death is certainly not the focus of the essay, and yet the position which it occupies within the text is significant. Death is no less than the source of the storyteller’s authority. The power of the storyteller is gifted by death. As the ethnographer’s authority arises from an authentic claim of being-there, of having the eyes and experiences of the witness, the storyteller’s authority arises from that which is beyond, from the dead, from that which in traditional metaphysical schemas is-not. In contrast to the ethnographer’s empirical authority which arises from the positive act of being-there, the storyteller’s hauntological authority arises from the domain that is traditionally ascribed to the negativity and negation of not-being.

 

Benjamin writes, “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.” 3 These words, amongst other considerations on death which we will begin to discuss below, are far reaching and nuanced.  What is offered here is no more than a sketch towards outlining their potential significance.

 

Notes:

  1. Benjamin, Walter (1999) ‘The Storyteller: reflections on the works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Illuminations, p. 83-107, London: Pimlico 
  2. One notable exception is Micheal Taussig who variously engages with the question of death in The Storyteller, and particularly in Beauty and the Beast, 2012, London: University of Chicago Press
  3. Benjamin, Walter Op. Cit. p. 93

Excerpt from The Living and the Dead: Dwelling

Excerpt from The Living and the Dead: Dwelling

The following is an excerpt from The Living and the Dead (Repeater Books 2016)

There will be a launch event for The Living and the Dead on 4th May 2017 at The Word Bookshop, New Cross


So what then are the dwelling-places of the human? Are not our houses and huts, our tents and caves, our urban and rural environments alike, spaces of nonlife that give forth life? In particular, the urban domain which so many people now inhabit reveals itself to us as a vastly complex ecosystem of life and death, one in which the extension of the organism occurs in the most varied, layered and complex ways—in the flowing of the sewers, the surging of electricity, the streams of traffic and tributaries of streets and roads, the transmissions and circulation of information and symbolisation, the capture, release and manipulation of vast libidinal currents. “Urban space gathers crowds, products in the markets, acts and symbols. It concentrates all of these, and accumulates them.”[i] And in this gathering, this accumulation, we can identify the coming-together, the becoming-with, of life and death, the tendential connectivity of both.

However, the urban space in particular, in its position as a space of the absorption of excess and the eruption of endless accumulation, has so often become a space in which the tendential connectivity, this commoning between the living and the dead, has been concealed and marginalised under the figures of finalist-death, under the logics of opposition, rationalisation and fatalism. The continual purging of life, that is the absolute exclusion of the living, from the rationalism of nonlife appears as the impossible dream of modernism. The grand structures of the modernist dream stand within the urban as spaces of nonlife that attempt a violent silencing of the tendential interplay between life and death. As an architecture modelled on the opposition of the living and the dead, that is moulded in the image of finalist-death, the vast towers of modernism with their proud, tall straight lines and gleaming pristine surfaces deny the efficacy of nonlife other than as a rationally manipulated backdrop for life. The processes of decay and dirt are excluded from them, and every morning and evening people across the cities come to these spaces tasked specifically with cleaning away any remnants of life that might cling to these structures, with the attempted absolute annihilation of any nonhuman life form, microbial or otherwise, that might seek to dwell within these domains of finalist-death.

A Misosophical Confession

A Misosophical Confession

 

Originally published on Through Europe, September 2014

 

“Thought is primarily trespass and violence, the enemy, and nothing presupposes philosophy: everything begins with misosophy.”[i]

“As far as ‘thought’ is concerned, works are falsifications, since they eliminate the provisional and the non-repeatable, the instantaneous and the mingling of purity and impurity, disorder and order.”[ii]

“I distrust all systematisers, and avoid them. The will to a system shows a lack of honesty”[iii]

 

 

 

What has become of lovers of knowledge today? What is the fate of those once revered and proud seekers of truth, those honest and upstanding journeymen of essences and universality? The shadows of these lovers of knowledge and wisdom appear to flit across the mirrors in which we seek ourselves, never leaving more than a fleeting impression, a muffled articulation that no sooner has found expression than it once more disintegrates amidst the determined babble of self-assured objection. And these shadows whisper to us of their own demise, of their submission to the systematisation of knowledge as utmost morality that rests never far from the surface of the façade which emerges of the demand and insistence for a unitary reality. If there is a philosopher of the future, their voice is meek amidst the uproar of accusation and blame; their gaze powerless when confronted with the piercing eyes of certainty; their will ensnared by the blockages and channels of a continually reinforced spiral of systematisation that sets before it the task of absolute universalisation.

Fragments for a radically negative anthropology

Fragments for a radically negative anthropology

Originally published on Through Europe, January 2015

 

 

What follows are various fragments that emerged from the efforts to explore what a radically negative anthropology might be.  They were written a number of years ago now and are revived to assist in a rethinking of what the project of a radically negative anthropology might entail, that is if it is not to be abandoned. Pride and egoism had kept them from previously being made public as they are written with the naivety and arrogance that I’m sure I will always find in the writings of my younger selves. Further, I had previously sought a level of coherence that was unrealistic, and in fact undesirable. I have now made additions, corrections and further considerations in the footnotes rather than updating the original text as I considered it useful to be able to identify what has changed since they were written and what has not. A very few have been removed entirely as they did little to assist rethinking the project or simply regurgitated tired old motifs. As such there are times when the roman numerals for each section skip forward in the series. I have left the original numbers in order that the removals and absences remain identifiable and are not effaced. Finally, I would ask the reader to approach them with a critical compassion in as much as we may seek out what is useful within these pages, rather than focusing upon their obvious insufficiency and incoherence. To use Deleuze’s words, “Every time someone puts an objection to me, I want to say: ‘OK, OK, let’s go on to something else.’ Objections have never contributed anything.”[i] Let us try and locate points of departure for creative lines of flight rather than obstructive blockages.  Let us enter the spaces of and… and… and…, whilst overcoming the not… not… not… Let us not succumb to the pits of nihilistic despair, but read these fragments as active and affirmative free spirits.

 

 

α)  Theories and Methodologies

 

I

 

Anthropology must no longer determine what humanity is. It must no longer attribute qualities and characteristics to humanity. It must escape it obsession with positivity. This is the primary sense of a radically negative anthropology.

 

II

 

Anthropology must work harder to remove the mask of science[ii], under the mask of Enlightenment. The very notion of a radically negative anthropology requires operating without masks, further without faciality; in the eternal return to chaos, a radically negative anthropology must operate not only without a mask but also without a face, not simply in iconoclasm, in an eternal twilight of the idols, but through processes and becomings which do not even enter into the question of idols, icons, masks or faces, processes which never become differentiated enough to not be considered undifferentiated[iii].

Tendencies of Life and Death

Tendencies of Life and Death

Originally published on Through Europe, April 2014

 

Life forever holds within itself, coiled at the very centre of its unfolding, the fearful promise of death. That death, emerging from the shadows of the living, from the darkness that forever follows the living, brings about an absolute end-of-life, brings down its sickle upon the vitality of the existent in order to return it to nonexistence. Death then, the absolute, final end-of-life, is that nothingness, that emptiness, that hollow darkness, which is forever stalking the living, anticipating that twilight upon which it may exercise its right to return ashes to ashes and dust to dust, restoring that which is living to the barren desolation of the non-living.  This is the terror that has plagued the thought of the Western episteme since at least the conception of episteme as such.

 

Such a conception of death, as that which brings an absolute end-of-life, has been persistent, and for all good sense, and indeed philosophy, it appears as though it could be no other way. How can it be possible for one to speak of death other than as an absolute end-of-life? Is it not precisely a complete and absolute lack of life that is characteristic of death? It would appear foolish to attempt to think otherwise, to think death as something other than the final, absolute and total end-of-life. Nevertheless, in spite of its apparent stupidity, its total lack of good sense, its absurdity, and indeed as some might say, its impossibility, that is precisely the task to now be placed at hand, that of thinking life and death tendentially; that is to say what is here sought is an interrogation of the tendential relationship between the living and the non-living. The failure of the Western episteme to think death in a manner other than what I shall be calling the finalist conception does it great disservice (and let me be clear early on that on the one hand there is indeed a episteme, the episteme—that is the episteme of ontology, metaphysics and logos—for in no other way and at no other time has episteme been thought as such, that is as episteme and as Western; whereas, on the other hand, there is indeed a heterogeneity of epistemes that is irreducible to an episteme, a difference that is not internal but rather demonstrates unavoidably the open and connective nature of episteme itself, that allows episteme to form from that which is other than episteme and forever prevents its closure). Such a conception, that of absolute death, paralyses thought under the stifling force of fear and sorrow, and leaves us unable to even approach questions regarding the living. Our minds, moulded as they are by the episteme of finalist death, reel in horror at anything that is not static, clear and oppositional, anything that approaches the fluidity of life and indeed its relationship with the non-living.

 

The Haunting of Man: on the possibility of a panecastic anthropos

The Haunting of Man: on the possibility of a panecastic anthropos

Originally published on Through Europe, February 2014

 

The question of the anthropos lingers on, it remains as the ghostly apparition of that which was never thought, it continues, resting beneath a thin shadowy surface concealing its phantasmagorical form, it hovers beyond the vision of those who would fain it realised. The questions and answers linger on, nestled deep in hauntologies of Man.

Proud exclamations continue to echo in our ears, sending forth disembodied promises of objects lost amidst the ever-rising heights of nebulous abstraction.

“Here is the human.

Here is the human.

Here is the perfect human.

We will see the perfect human functioning.

We will see the perfect human functioning.”[i]

Answers come before the questions as the echoes of that which is yet to be asked. The general precedes the particular as the preconfigured subsumption of the latter under its own irrelevance. The normative predicates the normal and in turn, so too the other. The mind that longs for the anthropos has already made it in its own image in order that it too may be made of this image. Only when all the images are made, when the particular has been erased, when the answers have been set in spite of the impossibility of questions, does the inquiry begin.

“How does such a number function?

What kind of thing is it?

We will be looking into that.

We will investigate that”[ii]

A first (and failed) attempt at a manifesto for a radically negative anthropology

A first (and failed) attempt at a manifesto for a radically negative anthropology

Originally published on Through Europe, January 2014

 

 

“Breathing has become difficult, almost impossible: as a matter of fact, one suffocates. One suffocates every day and the symptoms of suffocation are disseminated all along the paths of daily life … There are no more maps we can trust, no more destinations for us to reach.”

 Bifo

 

In everything I demand that there should life, the possibility of existence, and then all is well; we are not then called upon to ask whether the work is beautiful or ugly. The feeling that what has been created has life comes before either consideration and is the only criterion in matters of art.

 Georg Büchner

 

I

 

Everywhere we look there are crises.[i] A banking crisis, a crisis in the Eurozone, an ecological crisis, a humanitarian crisis, a democratic crisis – crises in economics, crises in morality, crises in attitudes. Of course we know the power of the crisis narrative, we know that it is endlessly employed in order to perpetuate that which it presents as in crisis, in order to adjust itself an amount just small enough to avert collapse without any real change to form, we know that it serves as a scapegoat and a mass motor of subjectivity. But does this mean there is no crisis to be found beyond discursive webs? Does crisis simply remain a plane of discourse, some how separate from ontology? No. There are crises today, crises of subjectivity, discourse and ontology. We are in the midst of an anthropological crisis, a crisis of vitality, of the very foundations of intimate relations and of what it means to live.

Fragments on the zombie myth: the mortification of general intellect and the half-life of the cognitariat

Fragments on the zombie myth: the mortification of general intellect and the half-life of the cognitariat

 

Originally published on Through Europe, October 2013

 

“The only modern myth is the myth of zombies—mortified schizos, good for work, brought back to reason.”

Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari

The zombie is the point at which power’s domination, the domination of the state and of capital in all its shades – subjective, existential, epistemological, even ontological – has entered so completely into our communities that the unquestioning automaton is the most recurrent and common form-of-life to be encountered. It is the point at which subjectivity has been so deeply infested by the love of power, the micro-facism that is diffused across the global bio-political mass, that life only appears as a half-death, an existence the potential forms of which are predetermined, prelimited, constrained.  The images of loved ones appear, but terrify; intimacy gives way to disgust, and those who break free of their cages of isolation, who demand to reclaim life from its half-death, are confronted by the utter terror that surrounds them.

The zombie is a figure of diffuse terror and diffuse half-death. In its contemporary form, the zombie is never one monster, but a horde, a diffuse mass of more or less infected bodies. This form of terror, and of half-death, sits not only alongside mass production, mass culture, mass subjection, but also along side the diffuse and deterritorialised – biopower, affective labour, cognitive capital. The zombie form appears across the biopolitical mass, its base is spread wide, it does not return to a central power, to a vampire father or master warewolf, but is manifest anywhere. Regularly, the safe and secure companion that stood alongside the hero turns, falls to half-death, becomes the rotting automaton against which they fought in comradeship. The most intimate spaces of human experience and subjectivity are not free from half-death, just as they are not free of domination, of self-executing control and subjection under capital.

The Joys of Being Wrong

The Joys of Being Wrong

 

Originally published on Through Europe, September 2013

 

To some eyes this may read as a disclaimer, an attempt to remove all responsibility from that which is written or said, an abscondment from intellectual and ethical accountability; and perhaps to some extent, and from certain perspectives, it is.  Disclaimers are certainly popular in contemporary conditions, where various courthouses and bureaucracies of rationality and reason continually threaten to impose their legislation upon those who would transgress the limits of acceptability and correctness.  It is more or less an expectation that the personas of certain digital social spaces should explicitly state from where our statements and views come, lest the wrong body should be held to account by one of the many legislative frameworks which define the limits of what may and may not be said and by whom. In a situation where language becomes inscribed in an open and potentially continual space, we are consistently forced to find means of making ourselves imperceptible, of seeking anonymity, of becoming secrets. And all too often this becoming-secret flees into the dominant modes of representation and logic, those of brands, of capital, of identity, of Occupy and Anonymous. Tiqqun too flees into the territory of becoming-brand, of falling to the spectacle.

This in itself is a tragedy, first that such anonymity is necessary to attempt to escape the dominant modes of representation and pervasive logics of identity, to foster social change without rank individualism and the corrupt desire for domination taking hold; but secondly that such attempts so often fall into the logics and modes of representation that they sought to flee, are subsumed under the very power relations from which they sought escape. The alternate, perhaps more common, result however, of the fear of being wrong, of being punished by the bureaucratic-legislative rationalities, of being incorrect, is far more disturbing, sinister and saddening. This alternate result, amounts to a hollowing out of thought, of experience, of language, existence, human subjectivities, debate and discourse.  It is articulated through the inane chatter that fills and swarms through digital space, by the mundanity of the press and media, by the normality and insignificance of intellectualism and academia, by the totalising contraction of what is permissible thought, experience and opinion, by the reduction of humour and comedy from a powerful ontological expression and transformative force to a means of belittling existence and distraction from ethical dilemmas and duration in the world.

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