In Praise of Thacker
The new issue of Parrhesia was recently advertised, and the first thing that caught my eye when I opened the website was a review of a book I read some years ago, and that I know to be a fairly old one (from 2001): James Heisig’s Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School.
The review is by Eugene Thacker, (Thacker has written some interesting stuff in its own right: I’ve only read an article of his titled ‘After Life: De Anima and Unhuman Politics‘ which was quite interesting, but I hear that his monograph by the same name is pretty good too) and I cannot praise him enough for having bothered to dig up and bring this ‘old’ publication to the attention of the contemporary philosophical scene in general and of all those interested in meontology, void and ‘speculative nihilisms’ in particular.
[EXCURSUS: I include myself in this latter group, if somewhat tangentially: I have to confess an ambivalent, unsettled relation with the current -- for lack of a more comprehensive term -- ‘Lovecraftian’ stream of speculations. I seem to share with people involved in this trend many 'cultural influences’ (Lovecraft, a penchant for 'astronomical spaces', Black Metal, casual misanthropy...) but I am wary of the risk of 'hypostatizing' meaninglessness/negativity/darkness and taking them as ‘philosophical objects’. What I most appreciate in After Finitude is how Meillassoux insists on the ‘deflationary’ nature of his conclusions. To be systematically deflationary means rejecting any kind of mooring. In his bleak and well-written The Conspiracy Against the Human Race Thomas Ligotti makes quite lot of philosophical mileage out of the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe and his existentialism of meaninglessness – human beings are the only species which, more than the satisfaction of basic biological needs, needs to perceive a meaning in life; this meaning is nowhere to be found so we can either fool ourselves or live in eternal existential disappointment (trust the Norwegians to turn pure distilled despair into their main intellectual export - Vi døde ikke...vi har aldri levd). After some brief internet research about this guy, I've found out that another Norwegian philosopher, Herman Tønnessen (who, guess what, was a cosmic pessimist too) criticized Zapffe, claiming that ‘life is not even meaningless!’. Now, this could sound just like a silly form of: ‘I see your nihilism and I raise you a nihilism squared!' or ‘...a meta-nihilism!’. But, actually, I think it is a really good point. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of being fascinated with meaninglessness, to capitulate to feeling a secret pleasure in front of the cosmic catastrophe, to enjoy the poetry of annihilation, to indulge in an appetite for destruction…and so on. This seems to me as buying into another kind of transcendence: the transcendence of the rotten instead of the transcendence of purity, the transcendence of nothingness instead of the transcendence of absolute presence. Presence has not to be debased, it has to be deflated (this has also to do with my own theoretical inclinations, and my interest in using ontologies of void/contingency to (re)build an up-to-date, empirically grounded philosophy of science, but this isn’t the place to discuss that). Anyway, these are just working thoughts, and I am not really all that familiar with the Lovecraftian/Dark Vitalist gang: in January I’ll be exposed to a number of ‘dark events’ (the Dark Materialism Conference and Black Metal Theory II), and I guess I’ll then be better equipped to make up my mind about these issues.]
So back to the review: I really enjoyed Thacker’s opening paragraphs, beginning the review with a reflection with the experience of ‘being lost adrift in space’.
Being adrift in space is not only a moment of horror, but also a moment of speculation. It is, first, a confrontation with the certitude of death. The lone body, drifting into deep space, will inevitably dissolve itself into that abyss, both literally and metaphysically. When one is lost at sea, there is at least the reliable dichotomy of surface/depth or land/sea, to orient one’s being lost. Similarly, when one is lost in space, one is simply moving from one planet to the next (using the reliable dichotomy of earth/sky), perhaps with the stars as one’s guide. But the motif of being adrift in space lacks all these reference points. There is no ground, no horizon, no perspective—for that matter there is no depth of space itself, there is only blackness, an abyss that is at once flat and infinite.
I find that this kind of reflection on the experiences that humanity can gather from a confrontation with cosmic spaces — opened to our intellectual view (and, more proximally, to our physical exploration) by theoretical sciences and technology — is indeed a precious ‘speculative opportunity’ (Brassier’s term, employed by Thacker in the review) that can engender some very interesting philosophical/intellectual-historical work (which is the reason why I employed a very similar example in my own Speculations article).
However, later on in the review, Thacker titles the last section ‘Towards a Dark Meontology’. What does the ‘dark’ stand for here? I think that what allows Thacker to employ this term is precisely the intrinsic tension which can be found in westernized versions of Buddhist philosophy, often cluttered with (incorrect) ‘negative theological’ associations. These are precisely the kind of links (wrongly) drawn by early popularizers of Buddhist philosophy in the west — D.T.Suzuki above all others – who tried to make śūnyatā and satori compatible/appealing to Western intellectuals by comparing them to the mystical, Eckhartian tradition of experiencing the inscrutable ‘divine abyss’. Nishitani is guilty of this as well, as his interest in Eckhart, inherited from Heidegger, tends to lead him into an interpretation of śūnyatā all too close to forms of mysticism of darkness.
I am not suggesting that Thacker makes (with Suzuki) the mistake of taking Buddhist emptiness to be some ultimate form of ‘divine’ substratum accessible only through the relinquishment of conceptual thought (and indeed subjectivity). But, if I think that the philosophy of ‘absolute nothingness’ (zettai-mu) of the Kyoto school (Nishitani in particular) could be loosely defined in western (Greek) terms as a me-ontology, we should also remember that nothingness and void are very different (as Nagarjuna knew and as Badiou knows very well too), and produce very different (me)ontologies. Nishitani knew that too, of course. To quote from his 1961 Religion and Nothingness,  (where he is at first describing the western understanding of nihility)
However, instead of insisting on the pure formal nature of śūnyatā, he ends us up employing some very treacherous terminology  when he goes on to say regarding śūnyatā
Why not cut off all talk of transcendence then? Why oscillate between a pure formal understanding of śūnyatā (and therefore a pure structural understanding of reality as a whole, nothing but a presentation of void) and a mischievous talk of transcendence-into-immanence?
Thacker writes (quoting Heisig’s text) that
nothingness has to be understood as “the nullification of the self by the nullification of the ground it has to stand on.” This in turn leads to a further stage in which “that nihility is itself nullified…in the awareness that the world of being that rests on the nihility of the self and all things is only a relative manifestation of nothingness as it is encountered in reality.” As with Nishida and Tanabe, one finds with Nishitani a preoccupation with some form of a subtractive, absolute monism, a sense that, in Heisig’s words, “beneath that world, all around it, there is an encompassing absolute nothingness that is reality. Nihility is emptied out, as it were, into an absolute emptiness, or what Buddhism calls śūnyatā.
I am not sure whether ‘absolute monism’ is Thacker’s or Heisig’s formula but it precisely signals that kind of interpretation of śūnyatā which we should avoid. In a way, my critique here is somewhat isomorphic with Badiou’s critique of Deleuze as a thinker of the One in disguise (a similarity that one could link to Badiou’s reading of Deleuze as an Heidggerian, given that the main western influence on the Kyoto school was Heidegger himself) surreptitiously reintroducing a form of monism (and didn’t Hallward read the whole of Deleuze’s philosophy as a sort of mysticism of immanence, that of a spiritual, theophantic thinker, a philosopher of the outer-worldly?). Absolute nothingness is just emptiness, the void which we retrospecively observe as constitutive of (not creative)/structuring all realities. It’s not a creative force, but a dissipating one which can only be seen in the rear mirror.
[I should probably confess my committments, since I tend to read śūnyatā by placing it somewhere transversally in between Derridean differance and Badiouian void. In a very clear passage -- avoiding the transcendence/monism trap -- Heisig writes :
Isn’t this just a perfect formulation of the structure of the trace, of that constitutive autoimmunity parasitical to all presence?]
Going back to some of observations I made in the ‘excursus’ above then, śūnyatā is the deflation of reality upon itself, with no remainder: no virtualities, no ‘no-thing-ness’. There are no dark hidden chambers of non-being, no slimy dungeon of nothingness, no secret flow of annihilating powers: there is just emptiness, which is actually what was already there. The shouted answer ‘MU!’ that puzzled disciples often get from their masters in Zen koan is a deflationary answer, it is the deflationary answer – neither yes nor no (it’s a no, but not a ‘No because…’ it is a ‘No’ which resounds with the lack of any reason). It is also — with another Meillassouxian term — disappointing. Paraphrasing Tønnessen, reality is ‘not even nothingness’. In the Buddhist tradition this is liberating realization, which opens oneself up to reality. For me, on the other hand, a deflationary ontology is not to be sought through meditation, but is much more prosaically imposed upon all those who are less inclined towards revelation or metaphysics and concede final epistemic authority to the (mathematically formalized) physical sciences.
A poignant way to distill this conceptual (temperamental?) difference into a single example is this: compare the reaction of Lovecraft’s ‘heroes’ when cosmic horror finally reveals itself in all its unbearably out-of-scale annihilative power and in its violent, tentacular transcendence with the reaction that Meillassoux  recommends as appropriate for his readers:
The only proper attitude when confronted with such a problem is to maintain that there is little at stake in it, and that the spiritual tremulousness which it inspires, whether sardonic or profound, is inappropriate. Among the speculative criteria for the proper solution to the problem should be the sobering effect induced in the reader when she understands the solution, and says to herself, ‘so that’s what it was …’
Hard to imagine Curtis Whateley utter these words after having glimpsed the Dunwich horror. I like my philosophy — and my science — to be deflationary in this way. And such an attitude does not downplay the ‘alienity’ of reality-in-itself, which remains radically heterogeneous to the limited grasp of human cognitive abilities. The deflationary answer is not a correlationist answer. It simply avoids creating a new idol out of the cosmic alien.
To try and streamline a bit what I have tried to convene so far: the interpretation of śūnyatā as nothingness carries with itself a number of mystico-vitalist-Eckhartian-Heideggerian overtones (which allow the use of the adjective ‘dark’) which hang like crypto-theological adiposities (and I also take various qualifiers of vitalism like ‘foetid’, ‘rancid’, ‘dark’, ‘necro’ to be inscribed in a certain theological tradition – just read Augustine, distinguished exponent of a Pauline emphasis on the vilest forms of matter as the eminent locus of Divine, gratuitous redemption) upon the purely formal, structural and deflationary understanding of śūnyatā as emptiness/void, significantly perverting its authentic (mu)ontological import.
Anyway, minor disagreements (and tangential digressions) notwithstanding, many kudos to Thacker for bringing this book, the Kyoto school, and in general comparative philosophy, back onto the radar. So go on and read his review, Heisig’s book, and maybe some Nishida and Nishitani too, since – again quoting Thacker –
Though their positions differ greatly, the Kyoto School philosophers not only provide a relevant example of a tradition of comparative philosophy, but they also intervene, from stage left as it were, into the major philosophical debates of the 20th century.
It’s about time we brought some high-quality comparative work into cutting-edge philosophical discussions.