This evening I had a chance to finish reading Mark Fisher’s phd thesis Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction. Weaving together the CCRU-era emphasis on capital’s radical deterritorializing edge with foreshadows of the critique honed in his later writings (the concept of ‘capitalist realism’ even makes a brief appearance), Fisher bounces Deleuze and Guattari’s nomad thought and Baudrillard’s cool pessimism off on another to explore the uncanniness creeping in through ultra-late cybernetic capitalism. This uncanniness is explored, as the title of the thesis suggests, through the lenses of “gothic materialism. Fisher:
Gothic Materialism is flat with its material; it names both the mode of analysis and what is to be analyzed. It does not arbitrarily conjoin materialism with the Gothic, but insists that all effective materialism must lead Out towards a non-organic (dis)continuum. Amongst other things, the Gothic can serve as the proper name for this continuum, and cyberpunk is the registering of its arrival on the terminal shores of a wired humanity. Whilst an organicist left finds in cyberpunk the quietist collapse of transformative political projects into a “hardboiled” “survivalist” hyper-nihilism, Gothic materialism locates in Baudrillard’s ecstatic communication, Gibson’s hyperspace, Jameson’s total flow, and Cronenberg’s Videodrome the map of a hypermediatized capitalism that is decoding privatized subjectivity.
Gothic materialism converges with matters of great interest to this blog, particularly where the collision of the “non-organic (dis)continuum” – or, to put it more succinctly, if not redundantly, the anorganic continuum – and cyberculture collide. Cyberpunk isn’t just a hyperstitional space unveiling capital’s templex invasion of the future; it is also in open transit with a deeply alien force. Xenogenetic mutagens range freely through the folding and unfolding of time, an encounter with which is illustrated in the CCRU’s depictions of the cybergothic. The term exhibits the same heat-fucked temporality as retroprogressivism and neoreaction: a looping together of futurity (cyber, progress, neo-) with the past (gothic, retro-, reaction). As Iris Carver wrote some twenty years ago: “Think of cyberspace as a black-mirror. It is where time flips over: collide with it and you travel backwards. As telecommerce accelerates us into the net, it seems that things of ever deeper antiquity awaken, and begin their return. So say the Cybergoths.”
Near the conclusion of Flatline Constructs, Fisher elaborates on the double nature of the black-mirror, placing on one side of it cyberspace (putting special emphasis on its independent economic function), and on the other the zone where cyberspace undergoes “black out”: the “catatonic ‘neuro-electronic void’… the image of the noumenal event horizon which we cannot go”. The time-shattering flip from one side to the other is the plummet into the deeper darkness of the anorganic continuum, described by Deleuze and Guattari as the ‘gothic line’ that gives rises to the “prodigious idea of Nonorganic Life” (ATP 411). Schizophrenia’s intensive voyages move in the direction of this line, taking “the schizo as close as possible to matter, to a burning, living center of matter” (AO 19). Nonorganic life, matter’s burning, living core – the anorganic continuum snakes through the fissure between the dead and the living and problematizes each. It is the plane of unlife, or as it might be called alternatively and without contradiction, the plane of undeath.
Echidna Stillwell: My researches have led me to associate this Chthonian entity with the deep terrestrial intelligence inherent in the electromagnetic cauldron of the inner earth, in all of its intense reality, raw potentiality, and danger. According to the Nma she is the plane of Unlife, a veritable Cthelll – who is trapped under the sea only according to a certain limited perspective – and those who set out to traffick with her do so with the very greatest respect and caution.
Hence the centrality of the Freudian uncanny. Fisher argues that by boxing the uncanny into castration anxiety – fear of punishment by castration for the content of our repressed impulses – Freud is attempting to ward off the true horror that lurks down this road, one that gets to the fiery core of ultimate repression. Dolls coming to life, non-living living doubles, the sudden recognition of likeness in some alien artifact – these are all treated by Freud as the cataloging of childhood traumas and past events that are repeating themselves through life. It is thus a return to the same, or the familiar, even if it wears a mask. It is what Deleuze would describe repetition of the same – but in Fisher’s resistance to Freud’s oedipal recoding, the uncanny’s dreadful mask moves towards the repetition of difference-in-itself, as the anorganic continuum itself. The uncanny, by making something dead spring to life, is a sudden eruption of the undeath into the fragile stability of ‘ordinary’ reality.
While Fisher doesn’t pursue it, it seems to me that this helps us get at Deleuze’s reformulation of Freud’s death instinct. In Coldness and Cruelty, Deleuze had transformed the Thanatropic death instinct into the groundlessness that upheld Eros – “beyond the repetition that links, the repetition that erases and destroys” (C&C 114). In Difference and Repetition this connection is deepened by tying the death instinct to the time of the Eternal Return, that is, the temporal mechanism of difference-in-itself: “Time empty and out of joint, with its rigorous formal and static order, its crushing unity and its irreversible series, is precisely the death instinct” (D&R, 111).
In contrast is the death instinct of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where Freud finds in the drive the striving to return to the same, in the guise of inorganic matter. Defining an instinct as “an urge inherent in organic matter to restore an earlier state of things”, Freud argued that if “the aim of all life is death”, the death instinct can be characterized the striving to “becoming inorganic once again” (BPP 30, 32). Life as disequilibria trying to loop back to homeostatic equilibrium – but other forces push back against the instinct to “ward off any possible ways of returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself” (BPP 33). Life is thus a series of ‘detours’ on the road to the actual event of dying itself, in which homeostasis is achieved.
Deleuze argues in Coldness and Cruelty that Freud contradicts himself at multiple points where the death drive is concerned, repeatedly crossing the line into repetition-of-difference in contrast to repetition-of-the-same, and that he has to fall back at each instant of doing so. This observation parallels Fisher’s arguments in Flatline Constructs that Freud must hold at bay the real source of uncanny dread by routing it back into the familiar. An example of such tension can be found in Freud’s himself complication of the organic/inorganic divide by suggesting that the living substance exhibits a “special envelope or membrane” that protects it from excesses of external stimuli, and that this membrane is “to some degree inorganic” (BPP 21). In this schema, the inorganic membrane is part of the infrastructure that carries out the warding-off of death and aids the ultimate flight into final death – yet by its very existence the categories of the organic and inorganic begin to crumble as the living substance begins morphing into an anorganic entity. By shifting the terrain from the base inorganic matter to an anorganic continuum, the body becomes not some radically distinct from the continuum – it’s continuous with it. This is what engenders the dread of the uncanny. It isn’t the repetition of childhood trauma, trauma being violent external stimuli that has pierced the inorganic membrane. It’s the repressed Secret that everything convergent upon – and emergent from – the anorganic plane of unlife, a trauma of the inside being unfold into its outside.
Professor Daniel Barker: Trauma is a body. Ultimately – at its pole of maximum disequilibrium – it’s an iron thing. At MVU they call it Cthelll: the interior third of terrestrial mass, semifluid metallic ocean, megamolecule, and pressure-cooker beyond imagination. It’s hotter than the surface off the sun down there, three thousand clicks below the crust, and all that thermic energy is sheer impersonal nonsubjective memory of the outside, running the plate-tectonic machinery of the planet via the conductive and convective dynamics of silicate magma flux, bathing the whole system in electomagnetic fields as it tidally pulses to the orbit of the moon. Cthelll is the terrestrial inner nightmare, nocturnal ocean, Xanadu: the anorganic metal-body trauma-howl of the earth, cross-hatched by intensities, traversed by thermic waves and currents, deranged particles, ionic strippings and gluttings, gravitational deep-sensitivities transduced into nonlocal electromesh, and feeding vulcanism … that’s why plutonic science slides continuously into schizophrenic delirium.
The trauma-core threatens the unitary self (as indicated in Anti-Oedipus by the proximity of the schizophrenia and the burning heart of ‘living matter’), just as Eternal Return, repetition-as-difference, dissolves it into the production of the New. Why must the unitary self – or, as Deleuze and Guattari call it, the “body-image” – hide this trauma away, repress it at all costs? Because it voids out the body-image’s interiority: being continuous with the plane of unlife breaks down the external source of trauma, predicated on the membrane that regulates passage from the inside to the outside, by unfoldng interiority into exteriority. The body-image becomes thrown back on what it has obscured, the Body without Organs. Or, in other words, it falls back on the primary process that has given rise to it: the anorganic continuum as auto-production.
In a passage that is as remarkable as it is horrifying, Deleuze and Guattari push deeper into the ruptures between life and death, the organic and anorganic, and along the way reveal the body-image as little more than a parasite on the gears of autoproduction. Taking their cue from Samuel Butler’s “The Book of the Machines”, which asserts that the mechanism-vitalism binary is annihilated under the absolute identity of the machinic and the organic, they write:
…it becomes immaterial whether one says that machines are organs, or organs machines. The two definitions are exact equivalents: man as a “vertebro-machinate mammal”, or as an “aphidian parasite of machines. What is essential is not the passage to infinity itself – the infinity composed of machine parts or the temporal infinity of animalcules – but rather in what this passage blossoms into. Once the structural unity of the machine has been undone, once the personal and specific unity of the living has been laid to rest, a direct link is perceived between the machine and desire, the machine passes to the heart of desire, the machine is desiring and desire, machined. Desire is not in the subject but the machine in the desire – with the residual subject off to the side, alongside the machine, around the entire periphery, a parasite of the machines, an accessory of vertebro-machinate desire. In a word, the real difference is not between the living and the machine, vitalism and mechanism, but between two states of the machine that are two states of living as well. (AO 285-286)
As Fisher notes, what is at stake here is “the delocalization of desire, and its fusion with generalized production”, a maneuver that sets in motion the articulation of this complex as traumatic, and its ultimate repression. The CCRU, following not just Deleuze and Guattari but J.G. Ballard, explore this through the frame of geotrauma, in which the body-image is exploded back onto the monstrous geological flux of deep-time (a prism that pulls together the materiality of the anorganic continuum with the empty time of the Eternal Return), where the grinding slowness of continental drift and the repetitive assault by catastrophic upheaval exerts a pressure that ravages and contorts the evolutionary process. In The Drowned World, Ballard describes the recording of these inhuman processes on the human spine:
The further down the CNS you move, from the hind-brain through the medulla into the spinal cord, you descend back into the neutronic past. For example, the junction between T-12 and L-1 is the great zone of transit between the gill-breathing fish and their air-breathing amphibians with their respiratory rib-cages, the very junction where we stand now on the shores of this lagoon, between the Paleozoic and Triassic eras.
Or, as Professor Barker sums up: “Geotrauma is an ongoing process, whose tension is continually expressed – partially frozen – in biological organization.” Cybernetics is another way to track this process; after all, it was Norbert Wiener who suggested it had “relegated” the vitalist/mechanist debate to “the limbo of badly posed questions” by contextualizing purposefulness in terms distinctly mechanistic terms. Push this a little further and we get to the true core that, in its immensity, shatters the confidence of the body-image’s agency by situating it in the multi-scaled cascades of self-organizing systems. Leveling: the cybernetics of technomic development burns out, more and more, the transcendent notions we had about the world, our place in it, and the interior functions of ourselves. A time-loop that bends the increasingly-close far-future to the deepest past.
Getting to this stage returns us back to the theme of the uncanny. Identifying the anorganic spectrum of systems as exhibiting purposeful behavior schizzes out notions of intelligence by making cyberpositivity transveral across many ruptured orders, imbuing them with a sense of uncanniness that cannot but actor as a destabilizing factor. The implications are of clear for the topics this blog relishes the most – capital, (already defined by Marx in terms of an unliving Gothic entity consuming society) and war (with its tendency towards non-human learning processes). But more at some other time!
Meanwhile, Thomas Murphy on Deleuze and Guattari’s anorganic mysticism: