On an Ungrounded Ooze: Dark Vitalism, Deleuze, and Ben Woodard’s Philosophy of Radical Disgust, Decay, and Dissolution

Book Review: “Towards an Ungrounded Vitality – Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Zer0, 2012), and On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy (Punctum, 2013).”

Woodard’s Dark Vitalism: From The Earth to Slime

The horror and fascination of that which is in-between, neither here nor there, neither one nor many, the multiplicitous, the excessive and the extreme – such concerns, and their potential impetus for thought and philosophy –  are the primary starting point of the work of Ben Woodard’s philosophy of “dark vitalism” as described in his two recent books Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Zer0, 2012) and On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy (Punctum, 2013). An entry point into this porous corpus can be found, amongst many others, in the metaphor of the slime mold, a fantastic yet quite living biological wonder which can either be either a uni- or multi-cellular organism, depending on the circumstances (Slime Dynamics, 6). The slime mold is, in this sense, a concrete and even living deconstruction of the very boundary between uni- and multi-cellular organisms so central to biological classification, as are, Woodard points out, viruses, and their undead cousins in fantasy such as ghosts, zombies, vampires, etc., in relation to the boundaries of the living and dead.

It is this uncanny and disturbing slippery deconstruction of categories, and in particular in relation to the slime mold, its inability to be nailed down as one organism or many, which Woodard takes as fundamental to their importance for thought. For since the time of Parmenides, the notion of the One, the unitary, has fascinated philosophy, and continued its legacy, in various forms, to the Ideas of Plato, the One of Plotinus, the Kantian ding-an-sich, etc. And yet, if what presents itself is neither one nor many, if the boundaries cannot be drawn, or once drawn, flee before one in the manner of what the Buddhists often refer to as “trying to write upon water,” what then? Without the notion of the noumenal ding-an-sich, the entire Kantian apparatus, and so much of the history of Western philosophy which grounded itself in analogous notions into the wake of Kant, is without anchor and ground. And yet, as Woodard, citing Nick Land, points out, noumena “are fanged,” they pierce and bite through any attempt to place them into the categories of Kantian thought which seek to domesticize the stuff of the world into knowable and manageable strictures. It is this messiness, and the disgust it often provokes in those who desire a pure ordering of the world, which provides the very starting point for a thought which, for Woodard, works to go beyond reactionary attempts to restrain the creative destruction which Woodard, Land, and their compatriots see as being at the heart of any and all aspects of our world.

Woodard’s frontal assault is in many ways on organism and bodies. For the boundaries these require to cordon off destruction both within and without are not only, for Woodard, futile attempts to perpetuate what, citing Ray Brassier, sees as the ”circuitous detour” which is life from death, decay, and dissolution. Rather, they are also evidence of endeavors to preserve life which, in the process, actually serve to radically impoverish it, disconnecting life from the “darkness” which makes vitalism vital, a life beyond life and death which is hardly the property of the living. Deconstructing the boundary between living and dead, animate and inanimate, it is decomposition, the fungoid and viral, which for Woodard holds the potential for the new, and it is the already concretized organism which

in its conservative reaction to the true creative destruction of the worlds around and within it which try to hold the “creep of life” at bay. In this sense, life which is truly living is often seen as disgusting to those manifestations of what Freud famously called “the death drive” which, by means of a compulsion to repeat, cling to the boundaries of what they were, the death drive which is in fact the very conatus of the organism, at least to the extent to which it seeks to perpetuate its already existent being, as such. For Woodard, organisms are precisely that which keeps life from being the fully disgusting, protruberant, slimy multiplicitous growth it has the potential to be.

But should we then embrace decay, or following Stanley Kubrik’s turn of phrase, come to “learn to love the bomb,” and all other means of destruction and dissolution for their own sake? Hardly, for what Woodard is advocating is hardly so simple as a mere hatred for life, for in fact, he embraces the putrid profusion of the life beyond the coherent organism, the life of the saprophytic, of worms and bacteria,life-beyond-life and unto-death which perhaps finds its clearest representation in the myth of the lamella (see SD, 56), beloved of psychoanalysis, a creature which supposedly embodies the pure life-drive turned into its opposite, a drive for pure death-in-life and life-in-death, the pure desire to reproduce unto death, destabilizing the very boundary between life and death in the process. Such a creature reaches its embodiment in fiction, as Slavoj Zizek points out, in the creature known as the Xenomorph in the Alien film franchise, a creature which exists purely to reproduce. For if pure death-drive leads to horror, the Freudian “return to an earlier state,” so does pure devotion to the cult of life, the encore! which demands ever more, the Eros which Freud describes as the perpetual “troublemaker” which taken to its extreme, would also lead to, if not an earlier state, then a simpler one. Taken to their extreme, both life and death end in death for Freud, and the only true life, or at least, life worth living, is one which deconstructs the difference between life and death not by means of the extreme but rather the middle ground. Such a life would, to take a phrase from Zizek, “tarry with the negative,” it would be a life which tarries with death without pursuing either pure death or pure life, but rather, giving death the unlife, the perpetual negation of life, which it needs to transcend itself, and with this, the boundary between life and death itself. Only such a life is not a living death, and rather, a perpetually relying and reliving life. Only such a differentiation followed by intertwining can truly be called something like a creativity which goes beyond the strictures of organism as a stagnant and rigidifying living death.

It is this attempt to move beyond the cheerful optimism of organism which helps explain the “darkness” of Woodard’s vitalism. For if the self-enclosure of the bounded entity is one of Woodard’s primary targets, so is facile “humanistic optimism” (Ungrounded Earth, 94) and embrace of “life” which can so often serve, in vitalistic philosophies, as an attempt to valorize particular forms of life against their others. Such boundary policing operations can easily abject the animal, the vegetable, the mineral, and in fact, anything which is inhuman. Humanism’s dark other side, the inhuman, that which Francois Lyotard famously saw as opening onto the politics of the differend, is in fact, for Woodard as much as Lyotard, the very foundation and ground of the human itself. As such, any attempt to value the human bases itself upon an abjection whose violence makes us inhuman. For how many times in history has the notion that some humans are less than “fully” human been used as justification for various forms of violence, from enslavement to genocide, reduction to bare life in its various forms, from sexual violence to closeting, silencing and so many other forms of violence, physical to symbolic and beyond? Few notions are more inhuman than the human, and in this sense, to value the inhuman is an ethical corrective to centuries of justification of colonization and oppression, if not outright attempts at destruction, of what is deemed “other” by those who lay claim to the human. And such notions of the human so often find their inverse and obverse in images of the earth as either “thing to be exploited, or as an object of nostalgia” (OE, 2), interdependent visions of self and world whose constitution is based on an originary repetition of abjection which seeks to exploit and oppress all which is deemed other. It is precisely the attempt to deconstruct such abjective mechanics that Woodard embraces that which promotes destruction, for destruction here is of purity and all the violences which this brings in its wake.

Woodard’s project is in this sense, like that of so many others fascinated with the “dark” side of theory today, a corrective to the destructive optimism which evidenced itself historically in forms which range from Renaissance humanism and the dream of human perfectibility during the heydey of Victorian colonialism, to the embrace of the fundamentalism of the forced spread of democracy and the “free” market under the Bush regime. But if there is one thing which seems to truly horrify Woodard, it is our “contemporary capitalist drenched being” (UE, 87). For if, as Gyorgy Lukacs famously argued, capitalism is nothing if not a machine for reification, or thing-ification, it is capitalism which today more than anything else convinces us that things are real, necessary, and beyond the play of production and history, a crucial lynchpin linking together so many of the mechanics of abjection at work in the world today as their economic substratum and ideological webbing. It is for this reason that Woodard urges us to foreground, like Lukacs, the very opposite of the thingified, laying bare whenever possible the fact that “bodies themselves are completely envoided, swirlings of matter and forces” (OE, 86), leading to an embrace of “a materiality made of powers and flows and not objects” (OE, 28). It is the reifying power of capitalism and all its related abjections which are in this sense the primary target of Woodard’s critique. For in a world whose boundary policing operations enact the divide-and-conquer logic of capital, a world in which production and labor are alienated and commodities seem to fall like acts of God from a glorious abode in the heavens, it is hardly surprising that Woodard prefers the role of Milton’s Satan against what, if one believes the hype, at least, is the “benevolent” dictatorship of TINA, “there is no other way,” the new world order of capitalist consumerism. And if God is a capitalist, the Leibnizian engineer creating the “best of all possible worlds” (of profit for the masters of the universe, that is), then to be a Marxist in today’s world is a dark and infernal endeavor indeed.

Or yet, perhaps to take a Freudo-Marxist tack on things, perhaps one needs to simply embrace the darkness already at work within all products of life, the pact with the death drive which allows any concrete entity to retain its repetition of corporeality, by pushing the poles of life and death within organisms to their natural breaking points, separating out the tendencies of life and death from each other, unleashing the powers of dissolutive creativity within and without the encapsulated organism. That is, take the very notion of capitalism as, in the Schumpetrian sense, as “creative destruction” literally, and free up the powers of destruction to destroy the capitalist machine which destroys all in its wake to accumulate more capital. Taking capitalism at its word, however, would be to destroy and destabilize its own ability to accumulate. It is this accelerationist approach which is championed by Nick Land today and Jean Baudrillard before him. Embracing the black sun of Bataille, the accelerations desire to liberate the powers bounds by the rigid frozenness of the repetition compulsion of the organistic, the embodied, and the human. The accelerationist, and Woodard with them, thereby flees the solar economy of cheery consumers hating their life working in cubicles so they can imagine being ever more like their idealized images in the media, images more alive than they are, all the while escapistly consuming products which are never as glamorous as their images, up to and including the images of war which are the only possible end for barely constrained aggression which such a dissatisfaction machine produces. Who steals the jouissance of the paranoid masses? The accelerations says the only way to get beyond such dynamics is to up the ante, and to help capitalism dig its own grave by liberating the powers of destruction which it works so carefully to not only nurture but also channel into precisely cordoned zones so as to maximize accumulation for the few. But if accelerated beyond the recuperative strategies of the system, it could all come crashing down, liberating destruction for newly creative ends. Or as Cronenberg would say, “long live the new flesh!”

A Destabilizing Grimoire: From Metaphor in “On An Ungrounded Earth” to Speculative Realisms

If Slime Dynamics is a statement of principles, Ungrounded Earth is Woodard’s grimoire. Continuing the bestiary of the corrupt which began in Slime Dynamics, with its particular emphasis on the fungoid and the viral, Ungrounded Earth is structured around an examinations of various avatars of the decrepit: the demonic and the infernal, the volcanic and the molten, the relic and the hyperbolic alien object, the appetites of worms and the destroyers of worlds, the torsional and Charybidic. There is a method to this madness, however, as metaphors are played off each other, such that a horizontal vector of destruction, a less intense form of ungrounding, is itself undercut, according to Woodard, by the more radical, vertical pole of ungrounding which destroys the very ground within which more superficial unravellings occur. Similar to the Kantian notion of evil and radical evil, beloved of Zizek, particularly in Lacanian comparison to de Sade’s notion of death and second death (or a modern day fantasy of human and final death in vampire fantasies), there is for Woodard not only mere horizontal dissolution but also radical vertical dissolution. The former unweaves bodies and boundaries, while the latter is a principle of unweaving as such. It is the dark sun, the ungrounded earth as opposed to the mere worming of the world. The goal for Woodard, if there can be something like a goal here, is to uncover the more radical potentials of putrescence, an “ungrounded earth,” that which can accelerate the capitalist reificatocracy towards its own breakdown, unfettering the powers of destruction which are the only thing which he sees as being able to lead to something beyond thingified hell.

What is clear within all this is that this is certainly a philosophy which, inspired in part by the theoretical fictions and fictional theories of Reza Negarestani, takes metaphor seriously. For it turns a series of cultural tropes into provocations for thought. This, of course, raises the issue of the status of these metaphors. That is, what might it mean to produce a philosophy of the fungal, the molten, or the viral? Certainly since Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1882) it has become a commonplace to see language as a “mobile army of metaphors,” and philosophy as an extension of this. Jacques Derrida radicalized this position in his essay “White Mythologies” (1967), arguing for the ultimately undecidability of any attempt to distinguish the merely metaphorical from the seemingly apodictic, taken-for-granted, or otherwise foundational aspects of a philosophy. Many have claimed, however, that such a line of thinking leads to a radical sort of relativism in which it is not possible to say anything that is more meaningful or true than anything else. From such a perspective, so the argument goes, any attempt to make meaning about the world, and to distinguish this from “the world,” is to fall prey to the ability of language and discourse to capture us with the seductive but ultimately illusory power of metaphor, such that any attempt to separate out the distortions produced by this seduction from what is ‘really there’ is itself ultimately as undecidable as any of the other seemingly undecidable logjams (ie: what is the true, the good, the beautiful? how should I live?) the attempt to find a solution to which, at least in theory, got one into trying to philosophize in the first place. Of course, for Derrida and following Nietzsche, a play of the meta-, of the transfer and slight of hand which is precisely the meta- in both reflexivity and metaphor themselves. That said, Nietzsche does seem to feel that metaphor can be deployed strategically and usefully, as works such as his Zarathustra, with its intentional rewriting of religious tropes towards the development of a philosophical religion of sorts, and Derrida does seem to believe the same, if in a much more local and less grand fashion.

It is in an attempt to sidestep the twin abysses of apodicticism and relativism that the philosophical movement generally known as “Speculative Realism” has come to be. Speculative Realism, a term which both Woodard and myself have at various points used to describe our own work, has generally been seen as arguing, if in incredibly diverse ways, that it is nevertheless possible to speak about the world, and even speculate beyond what appears immediately to our experience, in ways which are productive and useful. Some within this so-called movement, such as the Object Oriented Ontologists (OOO), often seen as including theorists such as Grahman Harman, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and Tim Morton, have argued that this is because there is an irreducibility in the “objects” which compose our world. From such a perspective, while aspects of objects, from stones to people to fictions to gods, reveal themselves in experience, not all of any of them do. As a result, it makes sense to discuss objects ontologically, as having an existence beyond the ways in which various epistemological filters, including various biases inherent to individual embodiment and psychology, as well as group linguistic and cultural formations, warp our ability to apprehend these objects. On the flip side of the speculative realist movement, there others who argue that it makes no sense to discuss entities ontologically, because we only ever have access to aspects of our world, conceived of as objects or otherwise, through our experience. Rather than dispense with the world, however, these more ‘relational’ or ‘process-oriented’ speculative realists,’ including writers such as Steven Shaviro and Ian Hamilton Grant, argue that we can speak about the world, even the world seemingly beyond our individual experience, because these very notions are in fact aspects of our experience. That is, even the seeming non-relation we have with various aspects of our world is itself a form of relation, such that even if aspects of our world are seemingly withdrawn, this only makes itself manifest by means of their virtual presence in what is not withdrawn.

Both of these sides of speculative realist philosophies, those based in more ‘object-oriented’ and ‘relational-process’ based approaches (and I generally include my networkological philosophy in the latter grouping), can be seen as responses to the challenge posed to traditional philosophy and its discontents by Quentin Meillassoux in his highly influential text After Finitude (2006). In this work, Meillassoux argues that Western philosophy since Descartes, and even moreso following Kant, ascribed to the notion of “correlationism,” a way of looking at the world whereby humans can never have access to the world “itself,” but only a limited experience of the world. Meillassoux sees this as a massive problem, for a reason similar to that of the post-Kantian German Idealists, such as F. Holderlin, F.W. Schelling, and G.W.F. Hegel, who, inspired by Baruch Spinoza, argued that any division of the world into subject and object, as well as any hope of correlation between these, must arise from a ground which precedes these. While Meillassoux takes an almost neo-Kantian, scientistic and mathematically inclined approach to solving this problem, one which replaces the ‘Idealist’ forms of post-Spinozist absolutism with an absolute of mathematical ideals pointing towards a hyperchaotic real, many speculative realists seem to feel that there is a problem with the strictures of Descartes, Kant, and their heirs, whose position Meillssoux calls “correlationist,” without necessarily ascribing to what Meillassoux puts in its place.

And so, followers of OOO replace correlationism with an ontology of objects, while the more process/relational oriented theorists tend to indicate a primordial substrate which cannot ever fully be captured by any one of its aspects. According to the relationalists, all aspects of the stuff of the world are continually in process, related to each other fundamentally, and continually grasping other aspects of this primordial substance in ways which gives rise to what has generally thought of as subjectivity, objecitvity, ontology, epistemology, language, ethics, science, and any other forms of experience, practice, and knowing, even if these are only ever aspects-in-relation as well as aspects-in-process. While some of these theorists pull their basic models from Whitehead (Steve Shaviro), Schelling (Iain Hamilton Grant), of Gilles Deleuze and Complex Systems Science (which is where I’d situate my own work, along with that of many other post-Deleuzians and folks influenced by the complexity sciences), the result is some sort of post-Spinozist alternative to the Cartesian dualisms which have haunted philosophy in and through Kant and beyond. While some of the folks who are often grouped with ‘speculative realists’ do not easily fall into such categories (ie: Catherine Malabou, Ray Brassier), most speculative realist thinking of the past few years has at least generally been understood in regard to the object-oriented and process-relational responses to the challenge initially posed by Meillassoux (for more on these issues, the first chapter of Peter Gratton’s Speculative Realism: Prospects and Problems (2014) lays out this terrain in greater detail). While many of the object-oriented and process-relational responses take issue with the way Meillassoux frames the issues at stake, they nevertheless have grouped around attempts to respond to the waves to which After Finitude clearly gave rise.

Where does Woodard situate himself in all this? Clearly he is greatly indebted to the work of Grant, whose book Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2006) brought a neo-Schellingan approach to the debates which gave rise to what is now called speculative realism. Woodard is not only influenced by Grant, but also Schelling himself, who plays a crucial role in Woodard’s construction of his own dark vitalism. For Schelling, subject and objects are produced by an unconditioned ground beyond ground which is only ever partially evidenced in the powers and entities which these give rise to in the processural generation of the world of experience. From such a perspective, all we have ever encountered is an aspect of this absolute ground beyond any relative ground, one which only ever shows itself in part in any of its products-in-process. While Schelling uses a continually shifting set of terminologies to describe these notions, the general gist is not far from a neo-Spinozism, and as such, has much in common, from where I see things, with the thinking of Deleuze. For Deleuze sees all actuals as aspects of a virtual of which they are only ever a part, such that any relative virtual always indicates an absolute virtual which always exceeds this, even as each and any are only ever aspects of this virtual as well, similar to Spinoza’s substance and Schelling’s unconditioned.

Likewise for Woodard, for whom the opening onto putresence, the dark and vital ungrounding of which any grounding is ever an aspect, can be found both within and without entities, revealed by horizontal wormic burrowings as much as vertical digging machinic borings. In this manner, he manages to break bread with the concerns of the OOO folks, and at times even sounds like an OOO theorist when he indicates the manner in which the insides of entities have within them a horror which can never be fully contained, an “Outside within the Inside” (UE, 22). That said, he seems to go against these notions when he speaks of the the “torsional porosities” (UE, 5) which destroy the unity of objects whose dignity the OOO theorists are so concerned to defend. And so, when Woodard speaks of a “materiality of powers and flows and not objects, or at least not objects that are anything more than temporary arrests or slowings-down of those powers” (UE, 28), he seems to indicate that the withdrawn core of objects is one which only has a temporary and tentative distinctness which derive from the molten flows within the radical ungrounded from which the grounded, ground, and relative ungrounded themselves emerge. All of which is to say that, for Woodard, following his Schellingan roots, there is always within any body the haunting doubling, from within and without, of its eventual extinction and mutation, giving rise in the process to a “naturephilosophy without bodies” (UE, 85).

Towards a Body-Without-Organs: Woodard in Relation to Deleuze and Networks

Does this mean, then, that Woodard is a theorist, following Delouse and his sometime co-author Felix Guattari, of a body-without-organs? For it seems at least to this post-Deleuzian that there is much in common with the approach described by Woodard, via Negarestani and Grant and back through Schelling, with the thinking of Deleuze, and the common ancestor of Deleuze as much as Schelling, namely, Baruch Spinoza. That said, Deleuze is the primary near-antagonist of Woodard’s texts, the thinker who is too close yet also not far enough away from Woodard’s own project to be merely dismissed. While Woodard’s critique of Deleuze bases itself largely on notions first articulated by Grant (in the aforementioned text) and Alain Badiou (in Deleuze: The Clamour of Being, 1997), Woodard leaves behind the polite critique of Grant in favor of the more polemic style of Badiou. Now, as a Deleuzian, I must say I find Badiou’s Deleuze an ingeniously constructed straw-person. Granted, most of us need a figure against which we structure our own thought (for me it is often a straw-person version of Derrida), and for Badiou and Woodard, this is clearly Deleuze. That said, it seems hardly possible to me that Deleuze, the thinker of radical difference within any and all difference, can be seen as the thinker of “the One” as described by both Badiou and Woodard. For if there is any “univocity” to the “immanence” which Woodard simply describes as “univocity/immanence” (UE. 9) in Deleuze, it is a univocity of radical polyvocity, of anti-univocity. How this is “structurally ideal”  (UE, 76) is not explained by Woodard, simply claimed. Rather than a “singular ontology” (UE, 8), it is Deleuze who first articulates the very notions of multiplicity, of the one-which-is-not-one, which is so central to Woodard’s own reading of slime mold in Slime Dynamics.

The result is what read to me like, for what it’s worth, as a missed opportunity to find common ground with the work of Deleuze. For in fact, it seems to me that there is a kinship between Woodard’s dark vitalism and Deleuze’s multivocity of the virtual, the radical difference within any relative difference and even repetition. I also see enormous possibility for common ground between the position articulated by Woodard and my own work towards a post-Deleuzian philosophy of networks. In regard to my own work, I argue that all we experience arises as aspects of the matrix of experience which is beyond any one, a oneand, which manifests itself as various nodes, links, grounds, and emergences-beyond-grounds which can be seen as taking on the fourandic structure of networks which are only ever, as Woodard would say, “temporary arrests or slowings-down” (UE, 28) of the perpetually churning fabric of emergence of which all networks are only ever aspects-in-process. From such a perspective, to the extent to which Woodard pursues a “naturephilosophy without bodies,” I see common cause here with Deleuze’s attack on bodies and organs, as well as my own attempt to show that within any seemingly discrete network, there are always more networks of networks of emergence, fractually and holographically at potentially infinite levels of scale.

None of which is to say that there are no differences at work here. However, it seems to me that Woodard and Grant’s neo-Schellingism, along with Shaviro’s neo-Whiteheadianism, and my own and other’s neo-Deleuzianism, are themselves aspects of a larger neo-Spinozism which finds the Cartesian legacy and its Kantian inheritors as what is most in need of critique in contemporary philosophy, and in its analogues in various forms of cultural thinking. While I can see why Grant and Woodard take issue with how Deleuze distinguishes between earth and world, reversing the priority of earth to world as described in neo-Schellingan models, this should, I believe, only be seen as a terminological issue. That is, while Deleuze defines his terms differently, I believe his concerns are ultimately in sync with those articulated by Schelling and the neo-Schellingan Grant and Woodard, for they all, following Spinoza, argue that all products of the stuff of the world are only ever aspects of the productivity which they incarnate and yet which always goes beyond any, each, and all.

Such a perspective also describes a necessary critique of the object-oriented side of speculative realist philosophy, a critique which has been articulated in a variety of forms of the many proponents of the more relational and process oriented side of speculative realism. For for process-relational theorists, objects are only ever moments of the larger relational matrix of which any aspects partake and yet which is always exceeded, internally, by this matrix (or in Schellingan terminologies, the unconditioned absolute, the ground beyond grounding, etc.). For to the OOO theorists, however, there is nothing metaphorical about the ontology of even fictional objects. That is, it is completely sensible to speak about the object known as Mickey Mouse, and to do so from an ontological perspective, as an object which ultimately has a core which exists as such, and which withdraws from any attempt at epistemological, linguistic, and other forms of cultural expression and/or articulation. Such an approach has led Peter Wolfendale to speak of this type of philosophy as “the noumena’s new clothes” (see Object Oriented Philosophy: The Noumena’s New Clothes, 2014), and I must in fact agree.

That said, if an object-oriented epistemology were added to this philosophy I would find it hardly so problematic, for in fact, then it would be possible to say, following Woodard, that any and all objects are only temporarily stabilizations of a fundamental substance which is itself differing, and of which objects are only ever aspects. Epistemology and ontology would then be aspects of each other, with each appearance a reality and each reality an appearance within the various forms of manifesting the substance of which all these are only aspects. This is the post-Spinozist solution to the deadlocks of Cartesian-Kantian dualism, and its inheritors in OOO, and it is this approach which is echoed, in various forms, by Schelling and Deleuze. Such an approach, which views the ungrounded as both within and outside objects, is in fact also that of Gilbert Simondon, a crucial influence on Deleuze, and a thinker whose conception of bodies seems quite similar to that described by Woodard. And so, while Woodard seems to find some kinsihp between his thought and that articulated by OOO, I feel that it is actually the Deleuzian and neo-Deleuzian strains of contemporary philosophy, as well as the neo-Whiteheadian ones (and Deleuze was quite an admirer of Whitehead), which have more in common with Woodard’s own concerns. And so, while I disagree with Woodard’s reading of Deleuze, I find his philosophy fascinating, useful, profound, and one whose developments I plan to follow with great interest in the future, for to me, as a post-Deleuzian, they are ultimately quite post-Deleuzian in nature.

But what then, about the metaphors? Deleuze argues in his Cinema books (1982, 1985) that it is possible to see the entities in the world as the world’s nouns, actions as the world’s verbs, qualities and the world’s adjectives, and relations as the world’s prepositions. Rather than linguisticize the world (as his critics often claim), Deleuze is concerned rather to naturalize language. That is, following his work in Logic of Sense (1967), Deleuze views language as that which emerges from the processural stuff of the world, echoing it as a plane or plateau of sense which intertwines with more concrete ones in a manner which Maurice Merleau-Ponty would describe as a form of “flesh less heavy.” That is, while language is “lighter” than the other stuff in the world, it is still fundamentally the same stuff, for language emerges from the world and resembles aspects of the world because it is fundamentally of the world. That is, for Deleuze, there is no hard break between language and world, meaning and matter, any more than between mind and body, mind and matter. Rather than imagine that language cuts us off from the world or gives rise to a post-Kantian “prison-house,” language becomes yet one more layer in the productivity of the self-differing stuff of the world of which any and all aspects of the world of experience, up to and including memory, fantasy, the future, hope, and difference, are always only ever aspects. For this stuff itself is the potential for change as such, a virtual oneandic matrix which is only ever folded against itself as actual ones, nodes and networks of substance which are only temporarilly cut off from the productivity of which they are only ever products and aspects.

Such an approach sees sense and language as emergent products of the work of nature itself, just as it sees mind and consciousness as emergent phenomenon as well. Rather than see meaning and mind as either human products or transcendent ideals, they are, rather, transcendental. And while Woodard takes issue with the “transcendental” at work in Deleuze (UE, 46), Deleuze nevertheless distinguishes between the transcendent and the transcendental, such that his famed “transcendental empiricism” nicely deconstructs the traditional notions of these very terms by linking them together. For to Deleuze, and oddly for Deleuze, drawing from Kant, the transcendental is not transcendent, but rather, an immanent form of sense making, one which deconstructs the very firmness of the distinction between transcendent and immanent. For Deleuze, this is precisely what does away with the need for transcendence, giving rise to an “Outside within the Inside” (UE, 22). That is, the transcendental is the distance within the immanent which allows for an empiricism which requires no transcendence, but rather, sees as the product of a radical productivity within the very stuff of the world which is beyond any attempt to reduce it to this or that, a radical ungrounding within any attempt to locate ground. That is, if Deleuze argues for immanence as a way of getting beyond the dualism of dualism, it is because he locates a radical differing within the fabric of existence which is the very stuff of which objects are formed, the “powers” of a Schellingan model, derived from the primordial split between the ungrounded and the ground from which any and all groundeds emerge.

All of which can help explain why Woodard takes a relatively panpsychist view of mind, one which is in accord with his Schellingan and, I would argue, ultimately Spinozist heritage: “The capacity of the brain to think cannot be ontologically different from the process of mineralization: the difference must be grasped in terms of the interiorizing and exteriorizing potentitialities of the ontic layering of the world” (UE, 63). That is, the solution to the Cartesian/Kantian split in the stuff of the world, the division between matter and mind which they then are are great pains to sew together (and need a ding-an-sich or deux ex machina, two versions of the same, to do so), the Schellingan approach is to see both mind and matter as able to relate because they are aspects of the same self-differing stuff which gave rise to them in the first place. Likewise with Deleuze, and complex systems science and the panpsychism which is the logical consequence of the deconstruction of Cartesian dualism at work in many contemporary scientists who are increasingly finding binary, dualist, and reductionist models highly constraining in light of more recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence. These more networked, relational models of mind see is as an emergent property produced by matter. Such an approach only makes sense within a larger panpsychist frame, however, for if mind emerges from the complexification of matter, it must come from somewhere, and this requires either the reintroduction of a deux ex machina, or the panpsychist proposal that, citing Woodard, “thought itself is an outgrowth of nature” (UE, 27).

From such a perspective, awareness and something like ‘mind’ must not come from some impossible elsewhere, but rather, must be an aspect of the very stuff of the world, its fabric, such that mind and matter are aspects of this stuff. Complex forms of mind emerge from the emergence of complex matters because mind is precisely the manner in which matter is extimate to itself, and awareness simply the way in which matter grasps its own grasping of itself. Mind and matter are, in the manner of Bergsonian matter and memory, like recto and verso, two sides of a sheet of paper, two aspects of the fabric of experience which gives rise to and is an aspect of all binaries yet is fully caught by none of them. And yet, all graspings of this fabric are themselves suffused with it, because they are aspects of it. This is what Deleuze calls “the Open,” and which, following complex systems science, I refer to as the matrix of experience, the oneand of emergence. From such a perspective, mind and matter are seen as intertwined at all levels of experience. And so, even atoms can be seen as being aware, which is to say, as grasping aspects of the world which impinge upon them, they experience the play of forces and particles and fields upon them, even if they lack the ability to reflect upon this awareness, for they simply are this awareness, they incarnate it. For only complex living systems are able to recursively grasp their own functioning as an aspect of their own functioning, and only living brains are able to grasp their own grasping of their own grasping as one of their own graspings, which is to say, become self-consciously self-aware. Mind and matter, from a panpsychist perspective, are then not truly distinct, but aspects of the ways in which the networks of the world grasp each other, with “mind” as simply the term we use for the abstract ways in which the brains of living organisms grasp their own workings in relation to how they grasp, which is to say network, with the networks of the wider world. Likewise with the word “mind,” itself a node within the networks of language, networks within the networks of which humans and their words and meanings, minds and matter, are all aspects of the differentiations and renetworkings of the matrix of emergence of which these aspects are only ever just that. It is such a panpsychism which can be seen as that which links together Shaviro’s post-Whiteheadianism, Woodard and Grant’s neo-Schellingism, and my own and other’s post-Deleuzianism in a critique of both post-Cartesian-Kantianism, as well as Meillassoux and OOO’s approach to these concerns.

Beyond the Solar Economy

While Woodard’s approach is metaphorical, then, the stakes are as deep as the ungrounded itself, for Woodard uses his metaphors as spurs for philosophical thinking about the nature of the world. By using tropes from science fiction and weird fiction as impetus for reflections on the the very stuff of experience, Woodard deconstructs many of the hallowed presuppositions of the traditional discipline of philosophy which would view such concerns as unphilosophical. For what, after all, at least, to those guardians of the hallowed discipline of philosophy, could horror or science fiction have to say to the rareified concerns of philosophy? Such an elitist conception of philosophy, however, is one which, as with the study of literature before the emergence of cultural studies, rests upon an implicit distinction between high and low which acts as a constitutive abjection which limits any sense of what deserves the dignity of thought and thinking in the process. In contrast, Woodard’s thought is polymorphously perverse, relishing in the disgusted howls one could imagine arising from more traditional philosophers who, I would argue, do themselves, philosophy, and culture at large a great disservice for ignoring the powers of ungrounding which are always already a radical regrounding, the power for deterritorialization and reterritorialization which deconstructs any and all to give rise to the potential for ever more complex emergences. Taking metaphor as serious terrain for philosophy means seeing the world as threaded through with meaning and metaphor, always already, with language and its tropes as echoes of the world which produced not only mind, but also language as clothing cut from the same polyvocal cloth. In this sense, I find the form as well as content of Woodard’s work provocative, and its methods unorthodox in the best sense of the term.

Woodard’s is a world open to change and difference, to mutation, is one which embraces the powers of a vitality which is beyond organic and inorganic, mind and matter, immanent and transcendent, signifier and signified, which destroys all such entities to give rise to the potential for the new. And, I would argue, the better. For there is an ethics to Woodard’s approach, one which sees the embrace of the darkness as an antidote to the poison of capitalist faux optimstic light. The paranoid suicide machine of capitalist reification, and its bourgeosie disgust at any sort of dirt and impurity, is precisely the hypercleanliness that a dark vitalism seeks to dirty up. And yet, the world beyond the dominant imaginaries and the binary symbolics which make these possible is one which is only horrific when viewed from inside these reified imaginaries which are necessarily, in their very closure, paranoid attempts to project difference from inside to outside. Only when difference within is embraced as the source of anything and everything does emergence stop being seen through the lens of the Zizekian/Lacanian “horror of the Real,” and allow for the possibility of a Spinozist joy in flux. For Spinoza’s Ethics is the originary powers philosophy, the original Anti-Oedpipal “handbook for anti-fascist living” (Michel Foucault’s famous description of Anti-Oedipus).

And so, if one finds oneself caught in a world of bodies, objects, and organs, death and destruction is truly liberation. That said, it is possible to superficially embrace destruction without embracing a truly radical destruction. Capitalism and fascism produce “creative destruction” while nevertheless paranoically channelling all the energies they release back into the reproduction of the same, namely, capitalist reproduction without end, and fascist repetition of the same. Just as Woodard criticize’s death metal’s “neo-paganism” (UE, 87), capitalism and fascism are not dark enough, they embrace limited destruction as apotropaic defenses against it, preemptive strikes in the name of a living death. The true embrace of death, however, is a living unto death which is the only true life, a life which embraces change and mutation beyond identity, which allows for the destruction of the self in order to give rise to mutagenic emergences which robustly allow for the growth of complexity, in quantitative and qualitative forms, for the greater potential for robust emergence for any and all. An embrace of emergence means death to the reified individual, something which fascist particularism and capitalist accumulationism embrace at the surface to deny in their depths. A true embrace of death, however, is a true love of life, for it allows life to do what it does best, which is to say, change in such a way to allow for greater potential for life in the future. Rather than deny death, the ethics of life is to embrace it so as to performatively deconcstruct the very binary. Fascism and capitalism, the twin poles of paranoid inwardness and cancerous reproduction, destroy potential by clinging to particularity. Embrace of difference is suicide for the individual, and horror to the shallow optimism of the desire for purity of the perpetual same. But vitalism need not be dark except in relation to such a dark view of life. In the meantime, however, both the dark deconstructive powers of the vital, those which unweave organs and bodies, fascisms and capitalisms, are as much needed as those productive forces which allow for new emergences. The horror of the Real and the multiplicity of the virtual both have a place in a world much in need of new metaphors to help us think of ways out of our “capitalist drenched being.”

And so, let us imagine life beyond the mere sun, one which travels by way of the black sun to a sun beyond darkness and light. A matrix of emergence, a singularity like that which founded our universe, but which has expanded to become the very fabric of all we have ever experienced, hoped, or dreamed. We have never left the singularity, it is beyond time for time and space emerges from it, along with matter and energy, mind and matter. Every aspect of all we have experienced is an aspect of the singularity which is any and all, and whose potential for differing is the very stuff of the world. We have never left because we are the way the singularity learns to experience itself. Learning to die to ourselves we give rise to the potential for greater life for any and all, and ultimately, for all the selves beyond ourself which we always already have been, are, and have the potential to become. That is, we are, like the slime mold, neither ourselves nor other, but both, and radically so. And the more we embrace rather than deny our fundamental multiplicity, in resonance with that of the world, can we learn how to better die to our deadly attempts to live meagerly at the expense of life. Only then can we begin to imagine a posthuman ethics of life of the robust emergence of complexity, in and beyond our attempts to reify and hold on to our tiny islands of it. Learning to die is, then, the meaning of life. It should hardly be surprising that vitalism, at least in our world today, then, needs to be dark.


~ by chris on March 15, 2015.

4 Responses to “On an Ungrounded Ooze: Dark Vitalism, Deleuze, and Ben Woodard’s Philosophy of Radical Disgust, Decay, and Dissolution”

  1. Reblogged this on synthetic_zero.

  2. […] https://networkologies.wordpress.com/2015/03/15/on-an-ungrounded-ooze-dark-vitalism-and-ben-woodards…. ] […]

  3. “Come, O Mother, come!
    Who dares misery love,
    And hug the form of Death,
    Dance in Destruction’s dance,
    To him the Mother comes.”
    – from Kali the Mother by Swami Vivekananda.

    they experience the play of forces and particles and fields upon them

    Or maybe they are the play of forces and particles and fields upon them. Maybe drawing a boundary around ‘something’ through which ‘other’ things communicate is always arbitrary.

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