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The Black Gravity Of Sound: An Interview With Eugene Thacker
Michael J. Brooks , October 28th, 2018 11:51

Cited as an influence on Warren Ellis and True Detective, Eugene Thacker's philosophical investigations into the "unthinkable world" find new expression in his latest book for Repeater, Infinite Resignation. Here he talks to Michael Brooks about the horrors of philosophy, music, and film

On receiving Eugene Thacker’s latest book Infinite Resignation in the post, I called to mind something a friend of mine said once on a walk through a wood. Talking on the matter of optimism and pessimism, and ‘half-full glasses’ versus ‘half-empty glasses’, said friend sighed, “let’s be honest, the glass is fucking smashed already, isn’t it?” I still consider it one of the more bluntly pessimistic things I’ve heard someone say with apparent spontaneity, and it’s only a couple of pages in to his book that Thacker addresses the same cliché with his preferred joke, ‘the glass is half-full, but of poison’.

Self-indulgent posturing this may seem, but it feels like wherever you look in these strange and febrile times, a cynical and doomy pessimism holds sway. Post-2008 financial crash, and particularly since 2016 with the seismic rupture of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, not to mention the ongoing aftershocks of anti-Semitic resurgence and the rise of the far right across Europe; the liberal optimism that fuelled mainstream political opinion for so long has been dealt a severe blow. Throw a rock these days it seems, and you’ll hit a pessimist, views scorched with the zealous bleakness of the new convert on everything from the state of democracy, nationalism, climate change, terrorism, and whether the sky itself might just fall in on them at any moment.

It’s fair to say that a nearly 400-page book on philosophical pessimism is not going to be everyone’s preferred bedtime reading. But that said, Thacker is one of the most refreshing thinkers to come out of the United States in recent years – 2011’s In the Dust of This Planet has become something of a must-read – and certainly a book of this nature would be a lot less engaging in other hands. He splits the book into two halves; the second, and more straight-forward, is a series of profiles focusing on who he calls the ‘patron saints’ of pessimism, such as E. M. Cioran, Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Pascal, and such like. Orthodox this section may be, but it’s no less interesting for it.

In contrast, the first half consists of a stream of aphorisms, snippets, discarded thoughts, and observations that abound with gallows humour, melancholy and down-right misanthropy. This section is the more engaging but challenging of the two, alternating between personal vignettes that course with the hot light of the familiar – the escalating irritation experienced by close proximity to an ostentatiously loud couple in a quiet coffee-shop – and poetic fragments (“the quiet vertigo in our ears is the slumbering turning of diffident dripping black moons”) that prove rather less successful, making one wish that the text had been across the desk of perhaps a harsher editor. Some aphorisms glare off the page with a frankly unremitting bleakness – “a park, a beach, a city street, an outdoor market, a concert, a restaurant … there is no better display of existential squalor than human beings performing their own enjoyment before each other” – that on more than one occasion gave me cause to cast the book aside with a sigh.

As a registering of the collective pulse, and an enquiry or study into the quotidian mood of the prevailing ‘it’s all fucked’ variety, Infinite Resignation will provide succour to those of an already pessimistic disposition, context to those with a healthy interest, and a devastating challenge to those incurably happy types who probably won’t pick it up in the first place, but almost certainly should.

Credit: Prema Murthy

I thought I’d start with the timeless philosophical question paraphrasing John Stuart Mill who asked whether ‘it was better to be a pig satisfied than a Socrates dissatisfied?’ In other words, is ignorance bliss if it means avoiding a life of pessimism?

One question that often comes up with so-called pessimist thinkers like Schopenhauer is, if it’s all for naught, life has no purpose, and non-existence is preferable to existence, then why bother writing it all down? So the first thing one has to grapple with is space of uncertainty and unresolved-ness that marks out the terrain of this kind of philosophy. There’s a bit of irony or hypocrisy in a lot of the thinkers and writers I look at in the book, because they start by trying to figure things out and somewhere along the line it all falls apart. Some of them try to seek some sort of redemption from that, perhaps through the act of writing or documenting it, but a lot of them just throw up their hands. Sometimes you sense that they know going into it that it’s futile, but other times it’s unintentional and that’s equally interesting.

Schopenhauer is an example of both of those – in his early work he really thought he was going to figure it out. He was deeply influenced by Kant and inspired by his reading of The Upanishads; he planned to write a big theory of everything. Somewhere through The World as Will and Representation it just falls apart.

I love that book because it’s a shimmering failure, architecturally, conceptually, everything. He starts out writing these very judicious, Kantian, analytical statements, and by the end you just get weird rants diverging off, anecdotes and aphorisms talking about nothingness. As a document of the limit of human thought, I find it fascinating. In his later work, he learned his lesson and didn’t even try and bother to formalise it, he just wrote aphorisms and fragments.

On the subject of the aphorism, you call it the ‘ideal form for philosophy’. I was struck by the suitability of the form for the times in terms of thoughts and invective being thrown around and circulating in 140 characters. How did you find working in that form and will you continue to use it moving forwards?

I’ve always written in the short form going back to when I first started writing, so I’ve always been attracted to it. I appreciate lots of philosophy that are big ambitious projects. I’ve nothing against that. But for me there was something interesting about the content and the form of pessimism. It had to do with something that was not total but partial, that hadn’t mapped it all out but was in bits and pieces, in ruins.

Knowledge gained is only partial and fragmentary, and there’s something interesting to me about the incompleteness and irresolvability of pessimist philosophy. I was a little trepidatious because I thought ‘people are just going to tweet this’ – but it’s very different to me because a lot of the attraction of tweeting is that there is no thought, words come into your head and you immediately send it out or just do it for shock effect.

If you look at the literary tradition -- the aphorism or especially the maxim, or it could be just a sentence or even half a sentence -- a lot of time it’s the result of a long laborious process of subtracting, cutting away and minimising. A lot of the one-liners in the book started out as small essays and then you go back and ask ‘is this necessary?’ until you cut it down to its quintessence. It’s not too dissimilar to what stand-up comedians do, it appears spontaneous but it’s actually the result of lot of hard work and editing.

I would probably describe myself as being a rather pessimistic person, but I often find myself feeling a certain revulsion in the face of overt pessimism from other people. Do you find this with yourself?

The first rule when you read this stuff is you realise that the boundary between optimism and pessimism gets blurry very quickly. There’s a line in the book – ‘I’m pessimistic about everything except pessimism’. There’s something quite inspiring for me about reading these works, that’s different from the everyday way we think about these things, in terms of relations with people and that sort of thing. Certainly, optimistic people creep me out just as much as pessimistic people.

There seems to be a resurgent interest within pop culture in nihilism and philosophical pessimism – shows like True Detective for example [for which Thacker was cited as an influence] – do you think this is something of a trend or fad brought about by socio-political orthodoxies having been challenged in recent years? Or does it speak to something deeper going on, perhaps to do with humans starting to find themselves in a fairly troubling predicament in terms of the environment, as you say, the ‘world-without-us’?

I think it’s both. On the one hand, it’s easy to look around, not just in terms of big politics but in an everyday sense, and you register the effects of global climate change just on your commute to work -- we’re in the fifth mass extinction right now, there’s nothing deferred about any of this. There is something about the ‘Now’ that is singular and specific but then there’s the fact that if you look back in history – when has there not been a reason to think pessimistically? It’s amazing how frequently human beings think the time in which they live is the most important and relevant. The falsity of that is always jarring to me.

The thinkers that I find the most interesting registered both of those thoughts, but then they also see the tired drama of humanity and there’s a moment, particularly with Schopenhauer, where they want to opt out of everything but can’t because they’re stuck with what and where they are.

Are you familiar with the work of the British philosopher John Gray, he’s often described as being a pessimistic thinker. One of the central tenets of his thoughts is that the Hegelian belief in progress and history moving inexorably forwards is completely flawed. What’s your view on the humanist faith in things in general steadily improving?

Yes, I suppose in terms of my view on that you could say I’m an anti-humanist. There is a naiveté to a lot of philosophy and political thinking that has always struck me as being completely unfounded in its optimism. Gray’s point is also stating the obvious – but it’s also no accident we have this global awareness of climate change, at the same time we’ve created these insular echo-chamber bubbles of social media to create – quite literally – virtual worlds where we can filter whatever we want to hear as a narcissistic reflection.

What do you make of contemporary writers such as Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson blaming the world’s ills on Nietzsche’s philosophy, do they have a point or are they just the latest in a long line of misinterpretations?

That’s a complicated question because Nietzsche is such a complicated thinker. I don’t take these sorts of comments seriously, because anyone who’s actually read Nietzsche with any degree of openness wouldn’t come out of it with this finger-pointing attitude. You can register how complicated Nietzsche’s philosophy is by looking at all the secondary scholarship on him. With most thinkers, there is more or less a party line that you can follow through. But every work on Nietzsche is a unique and different work itself, and you wonder how all these different interpretations can emerge from one text.

There’s something inventive and unresolved in Nietzsche’s work, especially his later writings on nihilism. People have to be reminded that most of his writings about nihilism were in notebooks that were never planned to be published, so they are filled with contradictions and unresolved ideas. So every generation reads that material and gets something different out of it, because it’s whenever it is – 1938 or 1969 or 2001 or whenever – they’re reading nihilism differently because of the context they are in.

Despite the fact that Nietzsche was deeply influenced by Schopenhauer, right away he was very critical of that kind of pessimistic philosophy – in fact, he makes a gibe about how Schopenhauer was all doom and gloom but then he went home and played the flute every day (Schopenhauer did love music and had a collection of instruments). He was very suspicious of Schopenhauer’s gesture of refusal and thought that if you pushed pessimism far enough it had to come out the other end and be another kind of optimism.

Nietzsche often called it a ‘pessimism of strength’ or a ‘Dionysian pessimism’, which would be a kind of pessimism that would take the world as it is, in all its ugliness, it’s error-proneness, and foreclose any possibility of a better world – there’s no afterlife, no reincarnation, no utopia, there’s not even a better tomorrow, you just have to take this with all that it is and then affirm that. Which is a tall order! But that’s his reply, if you like, to that sort of pessimism.

Disbarring ill health, one thing that seems to represent a trend among the ‘patron saints’ is their relative comfort, security and social advantage – whether Montaigne or Leopardi, Kierkegaard or Cioran. Is it perhaps the case that those who are objectively very badly off and insecure cannot, in some sense, indulge in pessimism because other more primal instincts, such as basic survival, take precedence?

Yes and no. One of the reasons I wanted to foreground that in some of these thinkers is that I didn’t want to make it seem that they were pessimistic because of their condition. That would make sense to most people, but the problem is that it’s conditional; it says, if only I had more money or better means or privilege then I would no longer be a pessimist, I’d be an optimist. There’s plenty of that conditional pessimism around, but what struck me about many of the writers is that it’s hard to point to one decisive traumatic event that determines their outlook. There’s a sense that they’re just wired that way, even when they come from relative privilege.

The other thing is that it’s easy to find examples of the reverse, Dostoyevsky is probably the most famous example – living hand-to-mouth in debt and poverty most of his life. It was important to me to present cases where you couldn’t really find the cause of it, therefore you couldn’t really cure or solve it in any way. That persistence is what was interesting to me.

Are there not arbitrary but not insignificant moments of genuine wonder and joy that are central to our being as a conscious self – sunlight hitting leaves in a certain way, an uncontrollable laugh, a thrilling piece of music or awe-inspiring work of art, love (romantic or platonic) is conspicuous by its absence in the book – and how does the pessimist philosophy account for or respond to these?

I avoided the discourse about love and the arts just because they are gigantic rabbit holes to get into, but it’s there in all of those thinkers, and not always as a consolation or panacea. One thing that’s remarkable is that if you list all these writers, music seems to be an exception for them. They are really grumpy and rant on about human nature, but suddenly when it comes to music they become giddy and almost euphoric – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Huysmans, Adorno, Cioran – down the line it’s an interesting exception that they make.

The best example of a sense of wonder is a poem by Leopardi called La Ginestra (‘The Broom’). It’s near the end of his life and there was a volcanic eruption nearby the place where he was convalescing. The poem reflects on the scale of human existence in the world, a human world of human concerns, but then this natural disaster reminds him of the planetary scale. The poem keeps zooming out into the cold, silent infinite cosmos of space. It doesn’t reaffirm any sense of the specialness of humanity but it also doesn’t cause him any despair, he arrives at this euphoric wonder precisely at the difference between the human centre of the world we live in and the indifferent or impersonal aspect of the planet. So all of these writers have a fascination with the un-human or a cosmic perspective that you could describe as a kind of wonder, which still doesn’t give them reason to live necessarily, but you could describe it as having a sublime effect.

On page 27 you say ‘it would make more sense to mourn birth and celebrate death’. Following that logic, would that make the bringing of a child into the world an act of great and unforgivable cruelty? Is parenthood actually a grave crime?

That’s the terrain of the anti-natalists like David Benatar; but also what does it matter what a philosopher thinks about whether or not people should have children? Go ahead and argue it, but then what? Do I really think that the upwardly mobile, hipster couple in Brooklyn who just bought a condo are really going to say “wait a second honey, we should read this book of philosophy first and have a discussion about having kids”?

It’s such a ramified problem. You can see it in culture both in how things are taken for granted, but also in the language with which people refer not to being ‘childless’ but ‘child-free’. In American culture there’s still a bias so it’s not like there’s any real discussion going on about the morality of rearing children. It’s a deeper problem. None of the WHO statistics are hidden, but instead our response is, ‘how can we go to Mars?!’, so we can just repeat the same egregious solipsistic behaviour on another planet? It’s very confusing.

In your previous work In the Dust of this Planet, you wrote about Sunn O))) and other black metal artists. Do you keep up with the black metal scene and is there any musical form of pessimism that has struck you lately?

I listen to music all the time, and I’ll often seek connections across quite disparate genres of that whatever I’m looking for. Sometimes it’s an aesthetic or a feeling, sometimes a pattern or structure, but it tends to cut across genres. The thing I liked about black metal and doom metal is the slowness and weightiness of it, it’s like deep time but in music. Sunn O))), Xasthur, and other bands captured this black gravity of sound. And they also tend to eschew the traditional vocal-lead guitar set-up, and everything is in the slow-moving wash and texture of sound.

I found that in other genres like noise music (especially Keiji Haino), the European avant-garde with composers like Ligeti, Scelsi, and Dumitrescu, dark ambient artists such as Lustmord or vidnaObmana, and contemporary works like Chihei Hatakeyama’s ‘Too Much Sadness’, Rafael Anton Irisarri’s ‘A Fragile Geography’, or Christina Vantzou’s ‘No.4’. There’s a lot to talk about in terms of music and forms of sorrow or grief, certainly every musical tradition has that – the funeral dirge, requiem, lamentation, or whatever.

Likewise, is there anything in the horror scene that has caught your attention of late?

Often what happens is that when something new comes out it causes me to go back. I haven’t seen the new remake of Suspiria but that’s prompting me to go back to [Dario] Argento’s original which is beautiful and amazing, one of my favourite films. The recent release of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy made me go back and re-watch Beyond the Black Rainbow, which is a fascinating film that captures the entrancing, hypnotic allure of the abyss, like drone cinema. The horror genre, in terms of contemporary stuff, there’s just so much and it’s often market-driven, which means it tends towards stimulus-response, shock effect scenarios. I’ve always been drawn more to the mood pieces.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there are a number of films that borrow elements from the horror genre, but place it in a very different context, slowing things down, drawing them out, creating an ambience. It’s like slow horror. There’s a film I saw recently called Cemetery of Splendour directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which is about a strange sleeping epidemic that takes over a town, and it’s full of fantastic scenes that are basically studies in colour and time.

I think too of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla, the experimental films of Peter Tscherkassky, back to Elias Merhige’s Begotten (an amazing study of film as ritual), Herzog’s Nosferatu, Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, and so on. Recently I’ve also been watching films about belief and unbelief – like Paul Schrader’s new film First Reformed (for which Lustmord did the soundtrack), and Lynne Ramsey’s mesmerising You Were Never Really Here.

At one point in the book you ask ‘how can everything be so loud and yet so insignificant?’ which seems a very apposite predicament for our times. If all life is futile and suffering, and if we have an awareness of this, how is one to live in the world, how can we get to a place of quiet significance?

If I had the answer to that I wouldn’t be a writer, I’d be a guru instead! I don’t think there’s really an answer, but I do think there’s something in these writings about being okay with the space of uncertainty, bewilderment, and confusion. Our kneejerk response is to think in terms of problems and solutions, questions and answers, and the culture we live in reinforces that. Maybe the practice of going back and realising that there are questions that don’t have answers – and that in itself is not a problem – is a good one. Writing, for me at least, is an end in itself. It’s a practice, something that I just do. But that doesn’t make it any easier or make me feel better.

Infinite Resignation is out now published by Repeater Books.