Between Absolute Spirit and the Angel of History: On Walter Benjamin and Hegelian Marxism

Atropos_o_Las_ParcasFrancisco de Goya, Atropos (c. 1819–1823).

The late writings of Walter Benjamin are renowned for their attempt to rethink the stakes of historical thought and for their critique of the ideology of progress. In Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History” (1940), especially, history is made into the site of a class struggle over the inheritance and remembrance of the dead, while the belief in progress is criticised for its reduction of historical time to an automatic and unthinking mechanism. In part due to their incompletion at the time of his death, Benjamin’s comments on history and progress have produced divergent readings, with a tendency to view his version of historical materialism as a move away from the Marxist origins of the term, toward a messianic politics of divine intercession in human affairs. Likewise, his critique of universal history has been placed in opposition to the universalising tendencies of Hegelian thought, with its task of grasping world history as a totality.

The goal of this paper is to put pressure on these received readings of Benjamin as a half-hearted Marxist and an implicit anti-Hegelian, by re-examining his late historiographical work in light of his interest in contemporaneous and unorthodox figures within Hegelian Marxism. I will argue for the centrality of the Marxist critique of bourgeois philosophy to Benjamin’s work, and especially the influence of György Lukács on Benjamin’s formulations of universal history, mechanical time, and the ideology of progress. Via Lukács, Benjamin’s commonalities with Hegel’s philosophy will also be elucidated, from their shared suspicion of bad infinities to the contingency that they place at the heart of universal history. Continue reading “Between Absolute Spirit and the Angel of History: On Walter Benjamin and Hegelian Marxism”

Dead Ends: The Undoing of Hegel’s Comedy

klee comedyPaul Klee, Comedy (1921).

The recent history of philosophy has been marked by a series of non-events. From Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history to Benjamin Bratton’s recent comments on the ‘revenge of the real,’ the tenor of philosophical fashion has turned from the revelation of new modes of thinking to the delimitation of thought within the rapidly shrinking space of possibilities of the present moment. Time, we are told, is running out, and all notions of human history are being jettisoned to make way for the great cancelation of history itself. In a pithy remark on the coming apocalypse, Bruno Latour summons Hegel’s Geist to stand once more for the sum of humanity’s endeavours, when he writes that “the breath of Spirit is now overcome, surpassed, aufgeheben, intoxicated by carbon dioxide!”[1]

Meanwhile, the apparent death of Spirit is mirrored by the emergence of an unorthodox Hegel, whose writing is no longer understood as the marker of a supremely rational, teleological, and humanist moment in philosophy. Instead, as Spirit chokes on greenhouse gases, the return to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit now reveals an altogether more sombre picture: a fragmented narrative, an anxious absolute, and an aimless movement through the graveyard of Spirit’s precursors. As Gillian Rose once remarked, contemporary philosophy supplanted Hegel’s comedy with a mourning-play without transcendence or resolution—but now this melancholy extends even to recent readings of Hegel himself. To take seriously the loudly proclaimed death of Spirit—as this paper intends to do—it will be necessary to run through these re-evaluations of Spirit, to understand the ramifications of Spirit’s confrontation with its own demise. Continue reading “Dead Ends: The Undoing of Hegel’s Comedy”

Outside of Time: Sloth and Melancholy in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

The topic of time and temporal order is not new to celebrated novelist and recluse Thomas Pynchon. In a now largely forgotten essay published in 1993 in the New York Times Book Review, Pynchon puts forward an account of modern time that is at once idiosyncratic and in clear conversation with his magnum opus, Mason & Dixon, published four years later in 1997. What is curious about this essay, titled “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” is its focus not directly upon the social structuration of time but the possibilities of moving against and hindering those structures by way of the mortal sin of Sloth. Sloth, or acedia, was once the sin of indolence and laxity which drew the faithful from their duties to God, but in Pynchon’s account the term has since been secularised to describe a sin not against God but against a more earthly order. Not only is Sloth secularised as a worldly rather than spiritual indolence, it is also given a profane meaning as a sin against an economic rather than theological order. In this new regime, writes Pynchon:

“Spiritual matters were not quite as immediate as material ones, like productivity. Sloth was no longer so much a sin against God or spiritual good as against a particular sort of time, uniform, one-way, in general not reversible—that is, against clock time, which got everybody early to bed and early to rise.”[1] 

If Sloth has a new meaning and a new use in the modern era, it is because it has become detached from the divine and integrated into a new perception of time which marches to a mechanical beat. More than anything else, Sloth has been borne into the modern era as a sin against the time of productivity—the time of work—as a drag against the motion of production and the ever-accelerating pace of modernity.

Continue reading “Outside of Time: Sloth and Melancholy in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon”

Underground Intensities: The Gothic Marxism of Deleuze and Guattari

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Boris Kustodiev, “Vampire” (1905).

Within the pages of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s collaborative works recur images of the most unsettling kind. Writing of capital’s endless thirst for living labour, they remark that it “is no longer the cruelty of life, the terror of one life brought to bear against another life, but a post-mortem despotism” or the despotism of the vampire (AO 228). Of the State’s manufacture of pliable subjects they write that it “makes the mutilation, and even death, come first. It needs them preaccomplished, for people to be born that way, crippled and zombielike” (ATP 425). Of their own virulent politics they demand that “we oppose epidemic to filiation, contagion to heredity, peopling by contagion to sexual reproduction. […] Bands, human or animal, proliferate by contagion, epidemics, battlefields, and catastrophes. […] The vampire does not filiate, it infects” (ATP 241-2). For all their purported joyousness, and the assorted “vital materialisms” which today claim filiation from these dubious parents, the two volumes of Capitalism & Schizophrenia are undoubtable compendiums of darkness and terror.

And yet, it is apparent that Deleuze and Guattari’s most morbid imagery appears primarily in their most political statements: when they recall Marx’s account of capital’s “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour” (1976, 367), when they revile the monstrosities of state subjugation, or when they posit a viral infiltration of the very arteries which feed state and capital alike. With this in mind, the object of this paper is to examine the radical politics of Deleuze and Guattari by way of their occulted images and monstrous figures. Specifically, and with reference to Margaret Cohen’s study of the phantasmic Marxisms of Walter Benjamin and André Breton, I wish to propose a “Gothic Marxist” approach to Deleuze and Guattari’s work.

Continue reading “Underground Intensities: The Gothic Marxism of Deleuze and Guattari”

Thinking Flesh: Nietzsche’s Hysterical Body

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Writing on the nature of conscious life in The Will to Power, Nietzsche remarks “that which is called ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ is of such unspeakably greater importance” for the production of thought than the “superfluous” sentiments of consciousness (WTP §674). “In the vast multiplicity of events within an organism,” writes Nietzsche, “that part which becomes conscious is but a small corner of it” (WTP §674). Far from being the centre of human life, the height of being, or the natural ruler of the body, the conscious mind is instead understood as a minor element among myriad unconscious processes which determine the visible workings of the mind. What appears to our conscious minds as a unity of self or an autonomy of mind is merely an illusion or  mask which hides the polyphonic base of the thinking subject. As Lou Andreas-Salomé remarks: “He willingly relinquishes personal unity—the more polyphonic the subject, the more it pleases him” (2001, 20). Similarly, Gilles Deleuze marks this fragmented conception of the self as central to Nietzsche’s philosophy, stating that

“Nietzsche didn’t believe in the unity of a self and didn’t experience it. Subtle relations of power and of evaluation between different ‘selves’ that conceal but also express other kinds of forces – forces of life, forces of thought – such is Nietzsche’s conception, his way of living” (2001, 59).

This emphasis upon the multitudinous forces which precede the thinking subject has likewise been emphasised in the commentary of Pierre Klossowski, who writes that “starting from these impulses, Nietzsche suspected that beyond the (cerebral) intellect there lies an intellect that is infinitely more vast than the one that merges with our consciousness” (1997, 33). What this paper suggests, however, is that this attention to the unconscious forces both discovered in Nietzsche’s writing and at work in his thought have not been fully situated historically. Emerging from among the late nineteenth century’s growing medical and literary discourses of the body, Nietzsche’s writings speak to a wider interest in the transfiguration of the body as key to the secrets of the mind. Contemporaneous with Nietzsche’s theorisation of the corporeality of thought are the medical discourses of hysteria, which saw the feminine body as a flux of malleable and preconscious signs. Drawing from works by Janet Beizer and Kelly Hurley on the medical and literary history of hysteria, I propose that the vagaries of the flesh in Nietzsche’s late philosophy be read as an adoption of the hysterical body as a model of creative, ecstatic existence.

Continue reading “Thinking Flesh: Nietzsche’s Hysterical Body”

Unearthly Utopias: Ecogothic Scenes in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

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The ambiguous role of machinery in Thomas Pynchon’s fiction has been much discussed, from the strange amalgamations of body and technology in his first novel V. (1963) to the haunted cyberspace of his latest Bleeding Edge (2013). As I have previously arguedPynchon’s fiction may be understood as participating in certain conventions of the Gothic genre by their recurrent imagery of humanity’s dissolution into an inhuman environment. This posthuman Gothic, as theorised by critics such as Sean Bolton and Anya Heise-von der Lippe, may be distinguished from an earlier postmodern Gothic in the way it eschews that aesthetic’s fears of disintegration by machines for a broader concern about the integration of our lives into machinery. In Pynchon’s fiction this integration is made manifest, as both his characters and readers become increasingly aware of their complicity in vast machineries of control, and the possibility that their seemingly autonomous sense of humanity was always already incorporated into a mechanical order.

Continue reading “Unearthly Utopias: Ecogothic Scenes in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon”

Into a Silent Universe: The Sublime and the Eerie in Byron and Ballard

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This paper was originally presented for the Cultural Enquiry Research Group seminar series at Federation University, Ballarat in September 2019. 


Extinction is no longer news: everywhere stories abound of a humanity on the brink of collapse. No longer relegated to the distant reaches of deep time or the arcane will of a deity, the end of humanity is now increasingly lived and felt as an ongoing process. The countdown to global tipping points are not measured in the millions or billions of years, but by the decade—and even as the timescale of catastrophe contracts to the span of a human life, the mass of processes, actors, and systems leading into this disaster become inconceivably more complex. In the words of the philosopher of horror Eugene Thacker:

“The world is increasingly unthinkable  – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. […] To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part” (2011, 1).

The future, we are told, is not human, but posthuman: which is to say that we will no longer be able to recognise ourselves as ourselves as we drift further into a global order of ecological disaster. As N Katherine Hayles declares: “If human essence is freedom from the wills of others, the posthuman is ‘post’ not because it is necessarily unfree but because there is no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an other-will” (1999, 4). In other words, we realise that the human subject was never truly separate from the material processes  relegated to the exterior of humanity, and as the world outside ourselves becomes unthinkable, so too do we become indistinct within the background noise.

Despite its seeming archaicism in the face of a posthuman future, I contend that the genre conventions of the Gothic, and its formula of “negative aesthetics,” are best suited to making sense of the catastrophe and decay which characterise that future (Botting 2014, 1). Just as the posthuman subject is structured around the human interior’s loss of autonomy from what lies outside, Gothic fiction follows what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has identified as a “particular spatial model” structured around the tensions of fragile interiors under siege from dangerous and desirable outsides (1986, 12). This model of the Gothic as a conflict between “what’s inside, what’s outside, and what separates them” thus lends itself well to depicting the anxious position of the posthuman subject—whose unstable, human interior is infiltrated and overpowered by the vast outsides of nature and machinery (ibid.). To elaborate upon this intersection of the Gothic and the posthuman I will look closely at a pair of aesthetic categories typical of the Gothic, namely the sublime and the eerie, to locate within the Gothic style a nascent sense of posthumanity.

Continue reading “Into a Silent Universe: The Sublime and the Eerie in Byron and Ballard”

Denying the Machine: Luddites, Monsters, and Pynchon’s Posthuman Gothic

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As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!

With these lines from Lord Byron, Thomas Pynchon ends his essay on technology and humanity, titled “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” (1984), with a resounding affirmation of the Luddite cause. The “‘Luddite’ skepticism that dominates Pynchon’s politics” has been well-noted elsewhere, but nowhere is it clearer than in this essay just what a fraught and ambiguous conception of Luddism Pynchon adheres to (Thomas 2007, 146). Far from espousing a simply anti-technological position, Pynchon’s essay is shot through with ambivalence, moving from the revolutionary hopes of Byron’s poem to the recuperation of those same energies to the ends of an eventual entente between humanity and machine. Pynchon equivocates between these two positions, suggesting in one paragraph that “if the logistics can be worked out, miracles may yet be possible” and in another revealing that promise of perfection to be the scam of “an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing” (Pynchon 1984).

It is the object of this paper to interrogate these equivocations in Pynchon’s essay, between humanity and technology, between miracles and machines, and to formulate what I identify as a specifically Posthuman Gothicism at the heart of this conceptual nexus. I wish to argue that in giving a contemporary voice to the Luddite cause, Pynchon simultaneously proposes both a Gothic aesthetics able, in his words, “to insist on the miraculous” and a paradoxically posthuman ethics able to “deny the machine at least some of its claims on us,” which together may “assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings” (Pynchon 1984). Further still, I suggest that Pynchon’s own fictions may in turn be read through this Gothic formula.  Continue reading “Denying the Machine: Luddites, Monsters, and Pynchon’s Posthuman Gothic”

“Down, Down, and Gone:” Gothic Cyberspace in Bleeding Edge

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Out in the vast undefined anarchism of cyberspace, among the billions of self-resonant fantasies, dark possibilities are beginning to emerge (Pynchon 2013, 327).

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel Bleeding Edge (2013), brings his longstanding concerns with technology and control into the digital age. The plot of the novel is too complex to summarise here, but can be understood as a mix of noir crime investigation, conspiracy thriller, and a latter-day cyberpunk homage set in the months following the dot-com crash of the early 2000s. The novel’s protagonist is Maxine Tarnow, a recently divorced mother of two and fraud investigator, usually of the financial kind, who is drawn by an old friend into a whole other world of crime: cybercrime. In Pynchonian fashion, the novel quickly descends into conspiracy, as collusion between tech companies, foreign governments and shadowy agencies crystallise. As the plot becomes overrun with loose threads of state-sanctioned barbarism, business malpractice, and cybernetic control, the lines converge on the web as a locus for the traumas of late capitalism, and for the hopes for another digital world which precipitated and fell away at the turn of the century.

The world that Pynchon dissects is depicted variably in the language of nineties and early-noughties pop-culture and in the darker tones of cyberpunk and the Gothic. Throughout the novel, the web figures as an otherworld just outside our own, where our dreams seek refuge and our nightmares take shape. In this paper, I argue that although Pynchon plays into the cyberpunk aesthetic, he ultimately redeploys its ambivalent terror and thrill for late capitalist economic and cultural capture to launch a critique against the world now made in its likeness. Looking back at the frenetic early years of the web, Pynchon forces us to see them through tragic rather than utopian eyes. This journey backwards in time begins with a departure from the surface web, through the forgotten and hidden passageways of cyberspace, down to the Gothic secret which lies at its heart. Continue reading ““Down, Down, and Gone:” Gothic Cyberspace in Bleeding Edge”

Dissolution & Decay: Traits of the Posthuman Gothic

The Posthuman and the Gothic

In her book on The Posthuman, Rosi Braidotti gives a startling portrait of the Posthuman approach to death:

What we humans truly yearn for is to disappear by merging into [the] generative flow of becoming, the precondition for which is the loss, disappearance and disruption of the atomized, individual self. […] This can be described also as the moment of ascetic dissolution of the subject; the moment of its merging with the web of non-human forces that frame him/her, the cosmos as a whole. We may call it death, but in a monistic ontology of vitalist materialism, it has rather to do with radical immanence. That is to say the grounded totality of the moment when we coincide completely with our body in becoming at last what we will have been all along: a virtual corpse (Braidotti 2013, 136).

Here Braidotti sums up the core elements of her conception of the Posthuman: the disappearance and disruption of the human subject; a repositioning of that subject within a wider cosmos of living matter; and the multidirectional mixing of the inside of the human with the outside of the universe. The Posthuman in this sense encompasses both the negative and the reformative aspects of life freed from the strictures of the human as a transcendent, universal category, out of which a myriad inhuman and unhuman forms of life may emerge. However, this passage provides a dark twist to the vitalist commitments its expresses. Although the moment of death is subsumed into a wider process of life, it also remains as an immanent and ever-present element of that process. In affirming the wider productivity and vitality of the material world beyond the human, we discover ourselves as something other than human. “‘We’ ‘ourselves’ are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces. There is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was” (Fisher 2016, 11-2). Continue reading “Dissolution & Decay: Traits of the Posthuman Gothic”