Terrestrial Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness

First I must deeply thank Kai Bosworth, Harlan Morehouse, and Rory Rowan for taking the time to review and comment on my work. I hope it was not too painful to do so!

The central barb or question of these reviews concerns my missing politics or at least how the work of On an Ungrounded Earth could be utilized for political means. The problem of proscribing or even suggesting a politics based on the basis of an ontology seems, at least to me, more potentiality disastrous than the aesthetic tone of an ontology. The need or desire to ontologize politics appears to stem from the desire to grant automatic political purchase to our theoretical musings or, less unfortunately, to use theory or philosophy writ large as a tool to unite disparate ontological movements and histories (one can easily see this in the work of Badiou and Žižek where political events or acts are variations on philosophical themes of the event and the Real). The obvious counter-claim here would be to assert that one cannot separate theory and practice and that writing is always a political act. While I would not wholesale dispute these claims I would call for a serious measure of degree – how writing compares to direct action, communal organization, and the like. We should also ask what does feeding ontology back into politics do?[1]

From this the further problem of the particular relation of nature or metaphysics to politics via the ontological rears its head. While certain political issues may seriously benefit from numerous small collective actions, the ecological crisis in particular is one that necessitates large-scale political involvement as the entities responsible for the degradation of the earth are multi-national corporations and governments and the field or domain of the problem is literally global. Given the global scope of the problem, large-scale intervention seems necessary. Such actions require speculation and high-level risk propelled and justified by work in the physical sciences, and yet acts of climate- or geo-engineering are often blocked or folded into pre-existing means of acquiring capital.[2]

In this regard I would say the ontological stakes for collective action are far less important (or at least far less immediate) than the aesthetic ones. I would argue that the greatest barriers to ecological intervention are those surrounding the aesthetics of nature, which are tied to a history of exploitative and mythical fictionalizations of the Earth. It is in this regard that On an Ungrounded Earth attempted, whether successfully or not, to create an anti-aesthetics. My own fascination with horror and its relation to the inhuman is an aesthetic choice made to highlight the epistemological and aesthetic gap that exists between the ontological and the political. It is this jump that I would point to in response to Bosworth's question about my own fascinations and how they relate to my critique of Jane Bennett's use of affect in her quite interesting text Vibrant Matter: A Political Ontology of Things. 

Still from Tree of Life Terence Malik (2011)

Since I indicate my own fascination with horror and with horror's relation to the Earth it is Bennett's jump from fascination to ontology and back again with which I take issue. Specifically in regards to Bennett this can be seen as dropping the problem of responsibility from the onto-affective relation.[3] Furthermore, and in response to Bosworth's excellent points on Bataille, I would agree that impure ontologies are what avoid fascistic politics with the caveat that epistemological mediation cannot be avoided (as much as Bataille hated it) in order to even temporarily locate ourselves within nature.

I take quite seriously Bosworth's invocation of feminism (and dark feminism) in regards to my text. As I have addressed elsewhere, a serious problem which has arisen in the commentary surrounding new materialisms and new realisms is that the former is more often than not coded feminine and the latter masculine. In an obvious sense this has to do with the demographics of each group yet this feeds into, and is fed by, assumptions about the gendering of reason and the gendering of affect.[4] I look forward to engaging Alaimo and Clark as Bosworth suggests but I am always skeptical, following Negarestani, that calls to vulnerability and generosity do not fall into affordance in the guise of openness.

Harlan Morehouse suggests that, like Emil Cioran, I may be guilty of being 'intoxicated by the void'. Again, I would appeal to the aesthetic dimension of my work. I would gladly call Cioran, borrowing Thomas Ligotti's phrase, a 'sympathetic organism’, and point out his own enjoyment for what he is doing. It is not simply that he illustrates the void to which we seem on track to meet, but that there is something to be said for describing things in such a way. In The Trouble with Being Born Cioran quips that the problem with suicide is that it always happens already too late. A similar statement can be made with regard to ecology – the problem with intentional human extinction for the sake of the earth is that it is already too late. Only an optimist would consider such mass suicide: there is too much of a mess.

While I do not dispute the view that we are, more likely than not, headed into the void, it is not without suggesting that we can do better or worse in the time in between. On being nailed to a future void I would point, via way of Dominic Fox's Cold World (2009), that pessimism can provide a certain form of useful clarity (not unlike Justine's comportment in von Trier's Melancholia). We must pass through darkness, yet there are stages of darkness; some we cannot pass through and some that we must explore with a cold epistemological scalpel to test the limits of our travels. Or, to put it another way, the difference between the philosopher mortician and the philosopher king, as Morehouse poses it, is that the former knows she is rotting. Morehouse points to Justine's statement that the Earth is evil in von Trier's Melancholia but I would point out that she quickly revises her statement and says that “life is evil.” The dreary end of my book is an attempt to set a heavy affective weight on a certain utopianism. The result, I believe, is not fatalism or defeatism in the local future (if not far, far future) designations, but a form of pragmatism.

One massive concern that arrives is how one gauges the worth or meaning of human life as opposed to maintaining the potentiality for other forms of future life on the Earth and elsewhere. Life is evil to the extent that it makes the possibility of evil salient. Life has a kind of terrible freedom: even the diseased eye, as Schelling put it, has its own kind of freedom. Or one could say life goes wrong most of the time as Lauffman, Longo and Montevil put it in an Heraclitian vein.[5] The 'evilness' of life is only its unpredictability and common failure compared to the restfulness of the inorganic. Life does not lead to balances but is a game of competing consumers – a competition heavily fixed in our favor by the human capacity for technological manipulation.

Part of the problem - a large part in my view - is that the argument that we must save, protect, or repair the earth for our own sake, will always lead to the fastest and less effective solutions. The excessive dark aesthetics that I utilize in Ungrounded Earth is not meant to stand alone. Rather, it is simply the way by which I attempt to break the aesthetic-philosophical models that cover over such quick non-solutions. While a dark aesthetics can lead to a host of nightmares, I argue that it does not necessarily lead to fatalism. That the Earth is monstrous does not change the fact that we live on it – I would hope appeasing it in this sense is a better fiction than decorating it with hopeful bandages.

The crux of the matter, I believe, is how to avoid the Charybdis of philosophy being that which helps us feel like we are being political or make us and our lives meaningful as well as the Scylla of critique which leaves us in a state of inaction. That is, there is an assumption that political action requires heaping meaning upon ourselves and yet such meaning can easily bury political actions in self-aggrandizement. What may very well be viewed as a cold-hearted pragmatic view is the only one that I see as being politically viable in terms of maintaining the best and broadest capacity for life on the planet. This pragmatism in a seemingly contradictory but necessary fashion is what guides our best attempts to fuel large-scale geoengineering proejects.

Here I would say that the concern is less one of blind optimism or inhuman dejection (Rowan, 5) but a more insidious combination by which an unlimited optimism acts as if it is a modest and unavoidable strategy for relating philosophy to politics. Ecological action with adequate scientific backing would not necessarily require the intervention of the philosophical in political terms as Rowan poses but, again, may have more viable work to do epistemologically and aesthetically.

Lastly I wish to address the theme of ungrounding. Ungrounding can be taken as a physicalist deconstruction in some sense but one without the phenomenological or hermeneutical grounds. Ungrounding, taking its Schellingian root, is not merely a de-naturalization of the natural but that becoming or potentiality is distributed while taking into account nature's asymmetrical stages formed thus far as laws. The relationship between natural and unnatural is replaced with that between antecedents and consequents whereby transcendental geology is the study of the movement between the various strata of the world. In Ungrounded Earth I hoped through an exaggerated pulp-aesthetic to charge the tracking of conceptual motion – an abstract affair that I saw suited to sci-fi and fantastic aesthetics.

as an ontologically distributive affair (despite its appearance as a highly speculative project) tests the potentialities of all objects as grounds (that are in turn grounded by others) reemphasizing the saliency of the pragmatic as simultaneously artificial limitation and actual operation. Or, in other words, it is the endlessness of universal potentiality that requires emphasis on local actuality. As Schelling emphasized repeatedly (and this is what sets him apart from Deleuze) it is that the world cannot be unbridled becoming for then what would time be? The natural world constrains itself in order to be productive or in order for there to be things at all. Neither being nor becoming is sufficient on its own just as any object, any idea, any isolation of strata, cannot be its own ground or its own consequent.

In this sense, the world as a potential tomb for self-important monkeys is not to be cherished, but, I would hope, effectively brooded on. As Steven Shaviro has written in regards to von Trier's aforementioned film – I aimed to produce a deflationary anti-sublime. Nature is what it is and meaning is a question of scale. This does not acquit us of a particular form of politics, ethics, or school of action, one way or another. Again, following Cioran, suicide is always already too late. The ecological question is where our limits lie in relation to the planet's: how much damage should it take for us? To avoid the gloom of this question is to avoid it altogether. 


[1] For a strident critique of political ontology see Thorne's “To the Political Ontologists” (2013).

[2] A recent litmus test was Ross George's dumping of iron sulfates into the ocean off the coast of Canada to stimulate plankton blooms. George's motivations were apparently largely or solely financial.

[3] I made this point in a paper titled “Against Deleuze's Joy” presented at The Nonhuman Turn at the Century for 21st Century Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwakee, May 2012. Bennett, who was in attendance, took issue with some of my critiques but conceded that responsibility was a point that required more attention.

[4] I address this in relation to Nick Land and abstract conceptualizations of capital in ‘Oceanic Accelerations’ (2013).

[5] See Longo et al (2012). For a discussion of Schelling's critique of vitalism see my Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Zero Books, 2012). 


Bennett, J (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ontology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Cioran EM (2013) The Trouble with Being Born. New York: Arcade Publishing.
Fox D (2009) Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria. London: Zero Books.
Longo, G Montevil, M, and Kauffman, S (2012) “No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere.” eprint Arxiv: 120122069.
Shaviro, S (2012) “Melancholia, or, The Romantic Anti-Sublime." Sequence 1.1.
Thorne C (2013) “To the Political Ontologists.” In Dark Trajectories: Politics of the OutsIde, J Johnson (ed). New York: NAME Publications.
Woodard B (2012) Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation and the Creep of Life. London: Zero Books.
Woodard B (2013) “Oceanic Accelerations.” In Dark Trajectories: Politics of the Outside, J Johnson (ed). New York: NAME Publications.