“There’s no philosophy of pessimism, only the reverse.” So begins Eugene Thacker’s most recent text, Cosmic Pessimism, a petite publication bound in an utterly Malevichian black-on-black matte cover. Interpolated with blotty paintings by Keith Tilford, Thacker’s ruminations on pessimism (and also, pessimistic ruminations) lay the groundwork for a larger volume on the subject he is currently undertaking. Filled with doom, gloom, horror, death, darkness, haunting, black opal and obsidian, this pocket-sized book is a poetic introduction into the philosophical (non)tradition of pessimism and an altogether beautiful piece of writing.
I sat down with Eugene over an aromatic spread of Colombian coffees to talk about the “lyrical failure of philosophical thinking” he describes as pessimism, as well as a lot of “O”s—object-oriented ontology, Octavia Butler, opaque writing, to name a few.
Blair Bainbridge: So, I was on the Wikipedia page for “Speculative realism”… Should I be embarrassed by that? And I found you. Did you know you’re on there?
Eugene Thacker: I’ve heard.
The subheading where your work appears is a mouthful: “Transcendental materialism / neo-vitalism.”
Ah, I did not know that.
I suppose that wasn’t your entry?
It was not, no. My tendency would be to do the reverse, to delete every trace of myself, but I learned that it’s really difficult to delete yourself from the Internet. You have to hire someone to do that for you, and someone else could always just put it back. So it’s just a fantasy…
As it is for all of us I guess. Though Wikipedia may seem unimportant within academia, pages like “Speculative realism” can give a certain insight into current trends of historicizing cultural theory and philosophy: how we identify with or come to be identified within certain schools of thought, as well as how our work is circulated and discovered outside of us, our institutions, our publishers. How do you think your work found its way there: to “Speculative realism,” subgenre “Transcendental materialism / neovitalism,” and is that a proper placing? More broadly, what are your feelings regarding the frenzy to label and historicize philosophical movements?
My guess is that it’s because of the book I wrote in 2010, After Life, which was very much a straight ahead philosophy book trying to dismantle the concept of “life” in the Western tradition. At the time, there was a turn in philosophy away from regional concerns, especially coming out of the heady ‘90s where so much was compartmentalized, and was about culture and identity and micropolitics and the rest of it. It was very fractured. The pendulum was swinging back toward big philosophical questions, and that was something I was interested in. But there was also shift in the ways those big questions were posed, particularly in the way they critiqued the humanist tradition. They were concerned with this cluster of questions around the horizon of the human—or the inhuman, or unhuman, or whatever you want to call it—and in a way that was willing to follow a thought to the end no matter where it led, even if it meant questioning the most basic foundations of human cultures. And that was something I definitely had an affiliation to.
The rest is just branding. I don’t know how helpful naming all these “schools” and “movements” is, but there is a mania of doing that now… then again if you read the biographies of earlier philosophers, say, during the time that Kant was working and after, you see the same squabbles and infighting, the same vying for attention, it’s so pedantic…
And fracturing into different fields and trends…
…definitely, going all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy, with all of these different schools competing for students, trying to out-do each other. It’s always been there in philosophy, and not just in the West, but in other traditions too—say, in classical Indian philosophy, with all these bifurcations and different sub-schools, competing traditions of commentary on commentaries, and so on. In the process the actual texts and the actual ideas get lost. It makes you wonder if it’s all just vanity at the end of the day. Today, we have this marketplace of ideas and we’re all trying to be heard, and all of us are getting drowned in the cacophony of self-interest and self-importance.
What about in terms of finding one’s own way, sort of like charting a thought-path?
I don’t know. I’m not sure how helpful “philosophy”—whatever that is—is for self-discovery…and to be honest a “self” is really the last thing I want to discover. There’s an arbitrariness to something like the history of philosophy in the West, and the way that history is constructed and created, particularly when you look around you today. You see your peers and colleagues outlining their pedigrees and branding their philosophies and saying, “this is a school.” It would be nice to think that philosophy is open to whomever seeks it out, but the reality is that the histories, the lineages, the genealogies, the “Great Works,” are all constructed by people in privileged positions. There’s nothing written in stone about them.
What’s more interesting to me are the exceptions, not the rules. For instance, a philosopher who is now in the canon and who, during their life, was mostly unknown, a Spinoza maybe, or somebody who always had this antagonistic relationship to the academy, a Nietzsche or a Schopenhauer or a Wittgenstein, or all the philosophers who were certain they were going to be part of the history of philosophy and are now forgotten, or those like Philipp Mainländer or Elme-Marie Caro, who were never known in the first place and are still forgotten now—and how all this is not a uniform, linear thread but rather a lot of happenstance, luck, politics, and nominalism. So if you want to learn about something like speculative realism, or if you’re just interested in Western philosophy generally, you do have to start somewhere, and websites or blogs or podcasts can provide convenient maps. The same goes for the more official histories of philosophy authored by erudite professors and published by university presses and read by five graduate students preparing for their qualifying exams. It’s all fine as long as you understand that it’s just a beginning, and that there’s also a lot of messiness to it.
At least understand the nuances of its own historicization.
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve relied on that sort of thing in terms of traditions I wasn’t familiar with like Mahāyāna Buddhism and Vedanta philosophy. There’s a real skill to being able to write a clear and coherent introduction to a philosophy while not dumbing it down, but it’s also rare to come across those kinds of texts…
Pessimism provides a great example of the limits of historiography. In your recent work, Cosmic Pessimism, you mention the difficulty of drawing together touchstone texts for pessimism, or crafting something as coherent as a “philosophy of pessimism” more broadly. What brought you to pessimism?
Well, simply having to live a life. Part of what interested me about pessimism is that it seems like it’s a thing. It has an -ism at the end, not unlike realism, idealism, pragmatism, materialism, and so on. But the works of philosophy described as “pessimism” tend to be fraught with a kind of inner futility, texts full of fissures and fragments, as if the text was involuntarily dismantling itself. Suddenly “pessimism” isn’t a valid philosophy at all, it’s just a bad mood (or as Nietzsche would say, a philosophy written on an upset stomach). But then again, I wonder how many philosophies stem from “a bad mood”?
Typically discussion of philosophical pessimism mentions a handful of names: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, maybe Pascal or Kierkegaard in their most angst-ridden moments, maybe Leopardi, maybe Camus or Cioran. But when you dig a little bit deeper you realize pessimism is much more complicated than that. If you open a dictionary of philosophy, you’ll probably find an entry for pessimism, and within it you’ll probably find Schopenhauer mentioned. But if you go to Schopenhauer’s texts you will never, ever find him saying, “my philosophy is a philosophy of pessimism.” In fact, you’ll see him actively distancing himself from that. So even Schopenhauer, the paragon of philosophical grumpiness, himself rarely even used the term “pessimism.” In fact, it’s quite difficult to find any philosopher calling themselves pessimists—especially the ones described as pessimists. So maybe “pessimism” is less a philosophical position and more of an indictment. I find that fascinating…inspiring, even. Failure is built into it. That’s why I think you can’t really have a philosophy of pessimism, you can only have the reverse. It’s something that questions the philosophical enterprise itself, but it does so from inside—pessimism is against philosophy, but in the “key” of philosophy.
So it’s not really a position, in that case. It’s rather something you fall in and out of. Or is it more strategic than that?
Maybe it’s a tendency. People have tried to make it into a bona fide philosophy. There are a number of followers of Schopenhauer, such as Eduard von Hartmann, who tried to create a systematic, scientific philosophy out of it, but that’s less interesting to me, because it fails—it has to fail. It’s important to appreciate all the non-philosophical modes of pessimism, the way it uses different modes of writing to slip in and out of the philosophical register. Pessimism calls the bluff on philosophy as pure instrumental rationalism. That non-philosophical part of it is what attracts me to it. And also the literary quality, the question of style. Any of the thinkers often described as pessimists are as innovative as writers as they are as thinkers. They not only make use of philosophical argumentation, they also make use of aphorisms, anecdotes, observations, fragments, jokes (usually bad jokes), biography, essays, and rants. Nietzsche is the most famous example. He’ll do all of that in one book. These kinds of thinkers, they’re writing against big, totalizing, systematic philosophy of the tradition of Kant and Hegel. They’ve given up on an idea of a system, but not on philosophy. That puts you in this really interesting space.
Early on in Cosmic Pessimism, you mention that pessimism is a philosophical form of disenchantment. That seems in contrast to some of the “new” philosophies we just discussed, particularly in the appeals of some materialists to the re-enchantment of the world of objects. How does something like pessimism stand in relation to recent material or ontological turns?
For me, the thing about pessimism is that it is enchanted by disenchantment. I don’t think there’s a project of a re-enchantment of the world or of objects or things or even thought, really. I often say to people that I’m pessimistic about everything except pessimism. An ecstasy of the worst. After all, if you’re a Schopenhauer, why would you write thousands of pages if you can whittle it down to one sentence?
Or play the flute?
Or play the flute, right. There’s a funny bit Nietzsche has about Schopenhauer, who not only loved music but had a substantial collection of flutes. Yeah, it’s kind of weird. Apparently Schopenhauer, in his later years, would spend each morning writing, and then take a break and practice the flute, before having lunch. So Nietzsche’s jibe was that Schopenhauer talked pessimism but really did so out of a secret optimism, or at least out of a secret enthusiasm…
In philosophy, I find there’s something compelling about watching thought reaching its own horizon. Sometimes it can produce an unexpected, loquacious form of disenchantment, maybe even to the surprise of the author. Philosophy then becomes unwittingly opposed to the fidelity of the infinite capacity of human thought, that human beings are so amazing that we can eventually understand anything and everything—an attitude embedded in these re-enchantment projects you mention. A lot of pessimist thinkers often reside in this space of aporia, so there’s rarely a claim that through pessimism you can gain some access to the world-in-itself or the thing-in-itself, even if that thing-in-itself is against the human. It’s just the minimal register of this horizon and a kind of bearing witness to a crumbling of language, bodies and the imposition of being. If you’re lucky you’re able to articulate that in a compelling way, but I don’t see a claim really beyond that. In that sense it’s quite different to some of the thinking in Speculative Realism, Science & Technology Studies, Object-Oriented Ontology, or these other modalities that claim there’s another vantage point or some new form of understanding. In a way, pessimism is skepticism run amok, a delirious skepticism…
Anyone who reads your work can see the care you put into accessibly communicating tough concepts. Is that something you feel comes naturally—perhaps from your background in literature—or is it something you consciously work toward?
I don’t think there’s anything innate about it. The culture we grow up in has preset ways of thinking and communicating, and then out of necessity or desire you learn some of those ways. The rest of the time you’re unlearning them. I think it stems from my interest in the practice of writing as practice, and from doing work across disciplines. I tend to move in between a lot. There’s also teaching. Just by going over a text again and again in a seminar, you learn that skill of translating and conveying nuances without simplifying. At least you try to. I don’t always succeed.
It’s really important in the classroom, but it’s not necessarily something you have to do for your readers. There’s nothing saying you have to make these concepts legible. You could be totally opaque and impenetrable.
For me, those things are not opposed to each other. It depends. Recently I’ve been writing a column for The Japan Times books section, so that has a context and word limit and a particular audience and so on. So you have to appreciate those parameters. But I like the challenge. It’s interesting to me to talk about a writer or philosopher and do it in 900 words and convey it to a general audience, because I learn by going through that process, whittling it down and finding a compelling way to write about it. There are also moments where you can do work that is uncompromising. A writer, I believe, has to do that. A writer has to always pose themselves the imaginary question, if you knew ahead of time that nothing you wrote would be published or attributed to you, would you still write, and if so, what would you write? It doesn’t mean that everything you write is at the same level, but at least you’re aware of that. It’s okay to do some works that are uncompromising and that ask things of the reader. That’s also being conscientious of the reader, because it’s saying: this is what the work demands, take it or leave it…
I know science fiction (SF) is important to your work, and you have taught a course at The New School on SF. How did this course come about, and what do you see SF offering critical theory, philosophy, or the social sciences?
I’ve taught courses on both SF and the horror genre, which I enjoy. I was thinking about this recently because I was working with a student who was writing about science and technology and they dug up my book Biomedia, which is one of the first books I wrote. In that book I was thinking about the triangulation of science, SF, and philosophy, and the role of speculation. In that and some other of my earlier writing, I was dealing with that space between science and SF, and using SF as a mode of philosophical thinking.
Using SF to troubleshoot?
More to problematize. And the Horror of Philosophy series is doing the same thing but with the horror genre. SF and horror are not typically considered high-brow genres. It’s only very, very recently that these things are studied in the academy, that you can take a course on it or that they’re published in Penguin classics. Their history is as pulp, low-brow. Even though they have that history, there’s something interesting happening in these genres because of the way they prioritize speculation and the role of concepts over character development and plot development and the rest of the things that constitute “literature”—these are stories that are concept-driven, and there’s definitely something to be mined from these genres, but before you get there I think you have to appreciate them as genres in their own right.
One arena where SF and philosophy frequently meet is in the field of posthumanism, in the ethical and practical questions associated with life beyond the human. Are there any SF writers you feel deal particularly well with the phenomenology of the posthuman?
Yes, too many. I’ve always admired Richard Matheson’s writing in this regard, his combination of simplicity and starkness in describing the liminality of being human. Another author would be Octavia Butler. She’s really skilled at occupying the fraught phenomenology of being human and then rubbing that up against the radically other. Many SF writers do this, but she’s exceptionally good at that. But there’s more recent SF writers, so-called hard SF writers, like Greg Egan, who deal with that too. With him as with earlier writers there is always the question, at what point does your distance from embodiment mean that you’ve relinquished any semblance of being human, and how do you qualify that form of life?
Butler’s writing brings you into these uncomfortable and intimate scenarios where it’s difficult to moralize. That’s why her work stands out for me. There are other works that do this, like Stanisław Lem’s Solaris. That’s a favorite of mine. J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, Ursula Le Guin’s story “Vaster Than Empires And More Slow,” Greg Bear’s Blood Music, so many others. With Solaris, the questions are pitched on a vast scale: what if there’s a sentient, non-anthropomorphic, ocean planet, how do we as humans even relate to something like that? So it’s not even about human-animal or human-machine boundaries, we’re talking about it at an elemental level. And then it does get quasi-metaphysical or spiritual. Then you’re into some of the cosmic horror writers, like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Izumi Kyōka, Thomas Ligotti…
Final question: If you could upload your mind to a computer and re-download into a new vessel, would you do it and what new entity would you become?
If I could choose the vessel, and if it’s something like a floating crystal composed of dark matter, maybe…maybe… but there would have to be an opt-out clause for immortality. Existence can be tiring.
Blair Bainbridge is a PhD student in the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science at University of Chicago, where she works on the anthropology of astronomy and imaging science, skygazing practices, outerspace imaginaries, and terrestrial extra-terrestrial landscapes. Her current research dwells in/on the American Southwest desert and its multiscalar techniques for apprehending sky/space.