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In space no one can hear you philosophize
In an era where the conditions of life appear under threat by the destructive workings of a civilization hell-bent on securing its own future on this planet, why turn from vitality and towards decay? Ought we not instead reassess civilization’s relationship to its own life-support systems and aim towards a kind of recuperative and harmonious means of coexistence with the things of this world? The latter seems the default position amongst prevailing discourses of 21st century environmental uncertainty. Here, we bear witness to overtures to Gaia, rhetorical flourishes pertaining to Nature’s sacredness, and innumerable statements on the necessity for the continuation of human society. As Al Gore puts it:
“We all want the same thing: for our children and the generations after them to inherit a clean and beautiful planet capable of supporting healthy human civilization” (2007: 287).
Even if such perspectives are voiced with an urgency that barely conceals the imminent threats to which they refer, they nevertheless provide a measure of hope for a happy ending in which humanity comes to harmonious terms with existence on Earth.
Such humanistic optimism and harmonious conclusions are not to be found in Ben Woodard’s On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a new Geophilosophy (2013). Marshaling a tone closer to Justine’s statement in von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it” than to Gore’s position on life and reproduction, the Earth, for Woodard, “Does not require much labor to become a monster. [It] is a stratified globule, a festering confusion of internalities powered by a molten core and bombarded by an indifferent star” (pages 83-84). Thus, Woodard’s Earth is a far cry from Gaia. Earth certainly exists, but it cares not for human thoughts and plights, and displays no vested interest in establishing accord with human civilization. It’s a giant in a state of decay somewhere between its own accretion and eventual annihilation by an expanding sun.
Woodard’s philosophical tack – whether it be called nihilism, critical negativity, or cosmic pessimism – might seem counterintuitive. Again, when conditions of life are at risk, why focus on decay? In part, pessimism seems a fitting reflection of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, not only on a planet wracked by the coupling of humans and petroleum, but also in a radically indifferent cosmos. Once more, I think of Justine whose melancholy allowed her to face total destruction with poise, compared to her sister Claire who, in hanging onto the last vestiges of Life’s sanctity up until the moment of impact, was ill-prepared for Earth’s annihilation. But I suspect there’s more at work than this, and I wish to speculate on some liberatory potential located in Woodard’s variation on cosmic pessimism.
First, Woodard’s Earth is an ungrounded one. Rather than an Earth as a concrete foundation for human thought, we’re provided with an Earth riddled with a vast labyrinthine network of decaying interiors that work their way towards the exterior. Thus, “caught in a torrent of irreversible sludge” (page 86), Terra firma offers no firm foothold and resists any attempt to reduce it to the mere ground beneath our feet. Here, the notion of ungrounding works against harmonious and equilibristic conceptions of the environment that are often predicated on idealized images of the world as a unified materiality held whole by predictable laws – one which bears resemblance to the Platonic ‘World of Forms’ that Borges aptly describes as “the motionless and terrible museum…still, monstrous, classified” (1999: 130). Maintaining conceptions of an ordered and fixed Nature does not make much sense in an era demarked by increasing recognition of environmental dynamisms, volatilities, and as Woodard would suggest, decay.
Second, cosmic pessimism exposes the hubris and futility at work in the notion of Progress. It frees us from an obligation to perpetuate the systemic madness of a civilization that appears content to secure the conditions of its own demise, but which nevertheless prattles on as if it deserved not only its own future, but also its future growth. Here, an inconvenient question (contra Gore): What if the future isn’t better? And, what would it mean to be okay with that?
Third, cosmic pessimism’s critique of idealizations of Life liberates us from bitter attachment to unrealized and unrealizable utopias populated by ideal subjects harmoniously interacting with the surrounding world. Much like the World of Forms, Utopia appears untenable in a world of decay, and meaningless in an indifferent cosmos capable of crushing us at any moment. Indeed, Woodard closes with a brutal anti-utopian sentiment:
We must face the possibility that we will lose all sense of at-homeness. We must cultivate a search for a new earth that ends in repeated failure, but in a sense that does not re-transcendentalize the original earth. Where the distress call leads to dead and empty vessels, where signs of life turn out to be no more than deadly microbes. A tale that ends only in the gradual thinning of the self-conscious biomass called humanity (pages 94-95).
This cosmic pessimism finds a close but perhaps reluctant ally in E. M. Cioran, a mid-20th century philosopher curiously amiss in the pages of On an Ungrounded Earth. Despite being unbearably bleak – “My vision of the future is so exact that if I had children, I should strangle them here and now.” (2012: 130) – Cioran’s work nevertheless provides a way of thinking the relationship between a human experience of the world and an indifferent cosmos. Put differently, with Cioran one might understand how disenchantment with modern politics and its failure to deliver us unto Utopia lends itself to a kind of preoccupation, if not outright intoxication, with the Void – an inclination, I claim, at work in Woodard’s philosophy.
Thus, in Cioran’s A Short History of Decay (2012) we can discern a line of argumentation running parallel to the discussion above. In a passage reminiscent of Justine’s line, Cioran speculates how the disappearance of words would expose the perversity of our life in the cosmos:
[When] we return to ourselves and we are alone – without the company of words – we rediscover the unqualified universe, the pure object, the naked event; where find the boldness to face them? We no longer speculate about death, we are death; instead of embellishing life and assigning it goals, we strip it of its finery and reduce it to its true meaning: a euphemism for Evil (page 121)
In a passage mirroring decay’s power over stasis, Cioran writes:
All I like is the explosion and the collapse of things, the fire which provokes them and the fire which devours them. The world’s duration exasperates me; its birth and its disappearance delight…. To live under the fascination of the virginal sun and the decrepit one; to skip the pulsations of time in order to grasp the original one and the ultimate…to dream of the improvisation of the stars and of their extinction… (page 122).
And with regard to the draw of the Void, Cioran remarks:
The human adventure will certainly come to an end, which we may conceive without being its contemporary. When we have consummated in ourselves the divorce with history, it is quite superfluous to attend the formalities….When we are forbidden visible prescriptions, we become, like the devil, metaphysically illegal; we have left the order of the world: no longer finding a place there, we look at it without recognition; stupefaction turns into a reflex, while our plaintive astonishment, lacking an object, is forever fastened to the Void (pages 72-73).
The purpose of bringing Cioran into this discussion is not to claim that cosmic pessimism has ‘already been done.’ The circumstances in which On an Ungrounded Earth was written are different from those in which A Short History of Decay were, meaning pessimism, as such, is in a constant state of negotiation with its situational contexts. Rather, despite these differences, Cioran’s approach to cosmic pessimism brings to light an analogous narrative thread that moves through Woodard’s philosophy.
This movement begins with the disenchantment with a philosophical ideal that demands an equally ideal material foundation upon which to realize said philosophy. Here we might think of the Philosopher-King with insights and access to archetypal entities – a figure best suited to curate the aforementioned “motionless and terrible museum.” In dismantling the Orphic conception of harmonious Nature through notions of ungrounding and decay, we simultaneously depose the Philosopher-King. However, this power vacuum is quickly filled by the Philosopher-Mortician – a figure who acknowledges, watches over, and inhabits decay, and conducts the final preparation for the dead. However, following Woodard and Cioran’s pessimistic trajectories, individual death is not the end. As decay runs its course – and here it’s important to keep in mind the massive scale of reference at work – what we seem to be left with is the Void. That is, absolutely and unapologetically Nothing.
It is precisely here – in the movement: Philosopher-King à Philosopher-Mortician à the Void – where I hesitate. Specifically, I hesitate to follow Woodard (and Cioran) into the Void, and I do so for several reasons. First, I hesitate as I did when I was young and fearful of descending into a dark basement. This, I suspect, is an intended effect of On an Ungrounded Earth, which draws its reader into dark corridors inhabited by uncanny Lovecraftian creatures only to arrive at a bleak, uncomfortable end – and it does this well. Second, I hesitate because the closing remark that delivers us unto ‘repeated failures’ in search for a new home simultaneously seems to require a willingness to relinquish hard-fought political philosophies and practices. Even if these things bear the stigma of utopianism, I hesitate to sacrifice them at the alter of annihilation for reasons well stated by Erik Swyngedouw, who warns that the mobilization of environmental apocalyptic imaginaries suspends the proper political dimension, and “forestalls the articulation of divergent, conflicting, and alternative trajectories of future environmental possibilities and assemblages” (2011: 267). (With this warning in mind, an argument could be made that aspects of On an Ungrounded Earth risk unleashing reactionary politics, such as those harbored by the young Cioran and H.P. Lovecraft, a constant aesthetic touchstone throughout Woodard’s book.) Third, I hesitate because I suspect the trap of melancholia, but a strange sort of melancholia. Whereas Kristeva claims…
Riveted to the past, regressing to the paradise or inferno of an unsurpassable experience, melancholy persons manifest a strange memory: everything has gone by, they seem to say, but I am faithful to those bygone days, I am nailed down to them, no revolution is possible, there is no future (1989: 60).
… in On an Ungrounded Earth, we witness a form of melancholia not nailed to the past, but rather to a future Void. Thus melancholia here appears inverted, but nevertheless lends itself to that self-same languid brooding.
That said, I’m not convinced that a movement from Philosopher-King to Philosopher-Mortician need necessarily end up in the Void by way of repeated failure. The deposing of the Philosopher-King and the subsequent collapse of the Orphic kingdom is cause for celebration. Further, the Philosopher-Mortician who presides over decay can serve to “blur the distinction between Earth, matter, and bodies,” potentially resulting in the creation of alternative imaginaries, as Kai Bosworth puts it in this forum. But, not content to wallow in melancholic languor, my sense is that we must fight our way through the dark corridors of nihilistic horror and cosmic pessimism in order to see once more.
I’ll explain by way of personal anecdote: During ethnographic field research amongst eco-survivalists, I had the distinct pleasure of being buried alive for approximately forty-five minutes. The purpose of this voluntary act was to reorient one’s senses to the ‘texture’ of the environment. As I settled into my grave and had approximately three feet of earth piled upon me – enough so that I couldn’t dig myself out under my own power – I was struck with intense panic, as everything about being buried alive seemed wrong. To cope, I slipped into a deep meditative state and, it seemed, fell out of time. Underground, I felt pressed in from all sides, held tight as a substance mixed with a cold medium. It’s almost entirely quiet down there save for a dull hum, which I’m not sure is coming from within me or without. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But, eventually, I’m unearthed and as my senses come to, I’m reterritorialized. And as I walked around, returned to light, I experienced visual intensifications of the immediate surroundings. Individual leaves, the play of light, rub marks left by deer, squirrel tracks ten feet out: These things were crisp and understood.
The point: Yes, it’s valuable to inhabit the cold, dark strata, but it’s also important to walk in the light of that “indifferent star.” And while nihilism and horror are useful perspectives to inhabit, they must also, I think, be passed through in order to sidestep the intoxicating and debilitating effects of an indifferent Void. This does not, however, mean that we should leave horrors behind, for in passing through dark corridors oozing with Lovecraftian slime, we’re bound to emerge with residues that cannot so easily be wiped clean in the light of day. Still, though these waking moments might well be immeasurably fragile in the indifferent (non-)order of the cosmos, they’re worth remembering.