On Dark Vitalism and an Ontology of Unrest

The talk has moved in some circles to the concept of “dark vitalism,” a term which I am still unsure of. Ben has been using this term for his own emerging system (pun pun pun) of thought, along with “dark phenomenology” and I think “dark naturphilosophie” as well if I’m not mistaken. What I am unclear of is what “dark” actually adds. My understanding is that, similar to “cold vitalism,” the darker cousin is supposedly less cheerful than Deleuzian vitalism. It has been said that this vitalism is both “nihilistic” and “mechanistic/deterministic.” I have outlined what I take to be the minimum requirements for a philosophy to be vitalist elsewhere (anti-dualistic, anti-mechanistic, anti-humanistic), and I will repeat my worry of bringing any form of determinism/mechanism into what I see as essentially a philosophy of freedom. Again, I will simply ask what the modifier, “dark,” adds to a vitalist system, how this differs from what I have outlined as “bare vitalism” if you will, based on Lash’s definition.

Besides this simple definitional issue, I also wanted to touch on Kevin’s recent post on the subject of dark vitalism. While I enjoyed much of it, especially the extended commentary and explanation of slime molds. I found the following paragraph worth bringing up:

Now it must be stated that an ontology of Death Drive, at least from a Freudian foundation, is one that already assumes a non-vital basis for Substance (or totality), for if Substance itself is living, a return to it would not be a death. [...] A strict dichotomy between Life (Pleasure/Joy), and Death (nil, an inorganic realm), while not conceivable for Spinoza, for Freud seems determined by the very centricity of vision, an absolute focus upon the biological organism itself as a complete boundary (from which life is attempting escape, or at least unweave itself).

I have said before that mine is a metaphysics of death drive and I feel I need to explain this further, using the above-quoted passage as a reference. First, it must be said that one of the points of my use of hauntology (indeed, my entire use of Derrida) is to do away with dichotomies such as “Life/Death” or “Being/Non-Being.” The image of the spectre provides us with the ground to rethink such things as the metaphysics of presence, and to apply this example to the whole of reality, as nothing is ever entirely present or entirely absent. In the same way, I don’t want to say that a vitalism is limited to saying “substance is alive” or even “Being is Life,” which is why I always say that “the proper name of Being is Becoming, or Life.” What Life gives us is a state between Being and Non-Being, as all living things are slowly dying, that is, they are always approaching both Being and Non-Being in their actions yet achieving neither, but maintaining a precarious balance between the two.

Why do I being this up? Because I think that we need to understand “Life” and “Becoming” not as states of being per se, but really understand them for what they are, the in-between. I mentioned recently on Kevin’s blog that I had been thinking of this is terms of Augustine. In the Confessions, Augustine defines life in terms of “unrest,” as the perpetual dis-satisfaction of our desires, which can of course never be desired. What I have said is that beings, that is, existents, have a basic relationship to reality of alienation; things want to either encompass all (Cf. Drive to Expansion) or, failing to do so, annihilate themselves from reality (Cf. Drive to Contraction).

What Kevin says above is that an ontology of Death Drive cannot be a vitalism, because it assumes a non-vital origin in the in-organic, but a vitalism does not allow such a dichotomy as organic/inorganic anymore than it allows one of life/death (all is organic in various degrees / all is alive in degrees). What I think would help clarify this is what I am tentatively calling “an ontology of unrest.”

Augustine defines life in terms of unrest, but what does this mean? It means essentially the same as Freud’s Life and Death Instincts, that we are caught in the drives between infinities, neither of which can ever be achieved. For Augustine, our desires can only be satisfied in the Infinity of God, while for Freud, as for Lacan and spectral realism, this infinite satisfaction of drives is impossible. For me it is impossible because of Time, and the important role it plays in my system (along with memory). An ontology of unrest is one that is both alive and dead all at once, as to die does not mean either to not exist (which, following hauntology, is not properly possible), or to be inorganic in the normal sense of the term (as nothing is ever really “dead” in this sense as it is always in motion). An ontology of unrest is an ontology of motility, which claims that things are always moving, that underlying the appearances of things as they seem, there is a deeper existence which defies notions of presence/absence and life/death. What once lived still lives to some degree, and what once existed goes on existing to some degree. The death drive then, at least as I read it, is the impossible drive to self-annihilation in the face of history, the longing to have never existed because it is impossible to be the only existent, which is the only condition for the complete satisfaction of desire. Faced with these impossibilities, all existents are tossed between these ends on the spectrum of becoming or life.

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11 responses to “On Dark Vitalism and an Ontology of Unrest

  1. kvond

    CL: “What Kevin says above is that an ontology of Death Drive cannot be a vitalism, because it assumes a non-vital origin in the in-organic, but a vitalism does not allow such a dichotomy as organic/inorganic anymore than it allows one of life/death (all is organic in various degrees / all is alive in degrees). What I think would help clarify this is what I am tentatively calling “an ontology of unrest.”

    Kvond: I would only say that if you accept this form of vitalism you have completely left behind Freud’s conception of the Death Drive, which as I attempted to explain my article, is both an explanation for a kind of behavior which his conceptual format could not accomodate, AND a Hegelian-like binary of extremes which necessarily are posited as a function of consciousness (Spirit) itself.

    To say that your’s is a philosophy of unrest, but then also a philosophy of the Death Drive is either to have left behind Freud’s Death Drive altogher (as you are no longer bound by the needs that generated it) and maintain it merely in name only; or, you are still within Freud’s Death Drive conception, and have maintained the Death Drive umwege itself (which is a fundamental unrest untill death), without owning up to the ontological assumptions that underpin its explanatory value.

    If I may take up Spinoza’s position, as I am ever want to do, in defiance of your preclusion that vitalisms can be mechanistic (Spinoza’s philosophy entirely being a philosophy of Freedom). The unrest is simply the fluctuations between power and diminishment of relative values that come from our temporal and finite status. To say that we are between Life and Death for Spinoza is merely to day that we are not fully Being, fully active, since only Totality of Substance can be this. Our unrest is merely our weave into degrees of Being, gaining and losing capacity. But this is ever governed by the Principle of Pleasure which ultimately lead to the relative inscription into Substance, really as Substances expression.

    If you are going to turn to Augustine, then it is good to also see that he, like Spinoza, adheres to a degree of Being conception, and that our freedoms are composed through movement “up the ladder” so to speak. Whether complete union is impossible (upon death) doesn’t really matter as the practical solution, for what matters is our ontological grounded movements towards Being, Knowing, Love (as Augustine defines them, or Truth). Like Augustine, Spinoza argues that because our error in thought is a privation, it makes no sense to speak of a Death Drive, for in that ontology such a drive would be characterized not by a return to a subtantive negation or opposite state (as it is in Freud’s concept of the Inorganic, but merely pure privation, which is non-sensical. If you want an Augustinian approach without God, I can’t see how you would not end up with Spinoza who comes right out the very Neoplatonic degree of Being framework which would deny the very coherence of Death Drive as an explanation.

    So when you conclude:

    “The death drive then, at least as I read it, is the impossible drive to self-annihilation in the face of history, the longing to have never existed because it is impossible to be the only existent, which is the only condition for the complete satisfaction of desire.”

    If I understand your claim, Spinoza would answer you very much in the contrary, for what it is worth. YES it is imposible to be the only One, that is to be Substance in its totality (our finite character precludes this), but power distribution itself, the actual means by which we change from more passive to less, becoming more active, is by realizing that we ARE already Substance, as are other things, and therefore whatever our states, we are already perfect as expressions.

    The idea that the resolution of our desires would be a drive that is a kind of spiritual “If I can’t be God I’m goint to take all my marble and go home” — i.e., wish I never existed, is precisely askew from our actual real world occasions of desire satisfactions. You seem to be positing an essential drive that seems rather immature (I don’t mean that you yourself are, but that supposed drive is), or adolescent. Instead really, Spinoza would claim, that is our attentive realization of just how power and knowledge are linked to our satisfaction of desires, according to a logic of Joys, that promotes exactly the opposite kind of thing. Yes, indeed, I can’t be EVERYTHING, but my historical condition is forever made MORE free, more Joyous, through my connection to all else that is.

    I appreciate all you comments, and your reading of the article, of course.

  2. Kevin, I will think about your Spinozist claims, but for now I wish to respond to the following. You say:

    “To say that your’s is a philosophy of unrest, but then also a philosophy of the Death Drive is either to have left behind Freud’s Death Drive altogher (as you are no longer bound by the needs that generated it) and maintain it merely in name only; or, you are still within Freud’s Death Drive conception, and have maintained the Death Drive umwege itself (which is a fundamental unrest untill death), without owning up to the ontological assumptions that underpin its explanatory value.”

    What must first be understood is that I do not take Freud at face value, but see his Death Drive (or Death Instinct) as nothing more than the drive in Bohme and Schelling towards contraction, which is also the drive towards egotism and self-annihilation (Cf. Bohme on Lucifer). This is a historical point, but also a metaphysical one. I read Freud (as well as Lacan) as metaphysicians, and I see the former as firmly wedded to this Theosophical tradition, while quite obviously attempting to break from it in the name of “science” (as if Schellingians such as Oken weren’t doing science properly). Freud’s two drives (Life and Death) are nearly identical to those found in Bohme and Schelling (Expansion and Contraction, respectively), and I believe this is the correct way to read Freud. In other words, while he may say that the death drive is one towards “the inorganic,” what he actually means (perhaps even unknowingly) is the drive towards the ground (grund) of nature, which for both Bohme and Schelling, is Nothingness.

  3. kvond

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I’m not sure that Freudians (or Freud) would find anything recognizable in this (and this makes your use of the term possibly problematic). Freud pretty much saw himself as a scientist and a physician, though certainly metaphysical underpinnings, or even yearnings, exist.

    As far as Expansion and Contraction, why not go all the way back to de Cusa’s Implication and Explication? I still don’t see why if we, as all things, are caught between Expansion and Contraction, you call this state a Death Drive state. It is merely that we get frustrated by being “in between” and want to end it all?

    I also am confused by the practical, real world diagnosis that come out of such an ontological position. If this is a universal ontological status, do animals feel “the impossible drive to self-annihilation in the face of history, the longing to have never existed because it is impossible to be the only existent”? If so, what is your evidence of this universal thought/drive? What behaviors are we talking about? Where does the fundamental nature of such a theoretically imposed drive gain its explanatory traction in the real world among things which are not humans?

    Or is this simply a human’s only Ontological thought?

  4. Freud would entirely disown what I find relevant in his work. He tried very hard to disown the metaphysical, vitalist origins of his work in Naturphilosophie (e.g. Schelling and his scientific followers).

    I don’t know Nicholas of Cusa’s work at all and therefore can’t really comment on it. From what I do know, Bohme and his followers (Oetinger for example) are the first to use Life as the proper name of God and therefore Being in the same sense as I use it. I may be wrong in this, but I have traced my philosophical lineage here, to Bohme, and have yet to find a vitalist system in this way prior. Again, I am open to correction, but for now that is where I am.

    I don’t know if animals feel the anxiety (for that is what it is) of the death drive as we do. I think my position is thoroughly anti-humanistic, and therefore applicable to the whole of reality. All things are caught in the tension between Being and Non-Being, whether they are aware of it at the same level as we are can’t really be speculated on and ultimately doesn’t matter for the general theory. That is to say, while we may be the only beings to characterize it as such, I think all existents are in the same position. While Schelling for example examines human psychology in the Freiheitsschrift, through the microcosm-macrocosm relation of all of reality, the analysis is applicable to all things. This is one of the tenets of Naturphilosophie, and one of the inheritances of the Hermetic thinkers of the past. In this same way, I take Freud and Lacan to be metaphysicians, while they and their followers may disagree with such a characterization.

    As such, I don’t think this is a system for humans only, but properly characterizes all of reality. That is, if you follow the moves I have made: claiming hauntology as first philosophy (as that which is between a proper ontology and me-ontology), followed by the dueling of the two drives (as those which push and pull all existents towards Being and Non-being). Again, I don’t take the death drive in the same way as Freud does, and see it as a general metaphysical principle applicable to all of reality. Assuming one can follow these moves, I think what I have been saying more recently follows naturally.

  5. kvond

    I perfectly appreciate the development of your philosophical position, but I can’t really make heads or tails of this (which for me is an immense problem):

    “I don’t know if animals feel the anxiety (for that is what it is) of the death drive as we do. I think my position is thoroughly anti-humanistic, and therefore applicable to the whole of reality.”

    If indeed such a drive (and a thought) is something meant to describe ALL phenomena, but you can find no actually behavior in animals, really “higher” animals which reveals the existence of such a universal drive, the claim that it applies to all things, or that it is anti-humanist seems only conceptual positioning (having little explantory force in real world conditions, including the explanation for animal behaviors). I mean if it is so completely fundamental a drive/condition, you would think that it existence would be writ large, evident in most animal behaviors. If humans are not the domain that this applies to, then the description so enlighten non-human phenomena.

    Cheers in all, and more success in your theorizing which I always find interesting.

  6. Pingback: Dark Vitalism II « Naught Thought

  7. Kevin, I think the main problem here is that you are looking for empirical data which quite frankly I have yet to concern myself with. At this stage, I am simply trying to outline the basic metaphysical principles of my system of thought and follow through with an understanding of these concepts.

    What I AM concerned with for now is developing a metaphysics that takes seriously Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence (which I think finds its wings in his “hauntology”) as well as my own realist reading of Schelling. In other words, I am concerned primarily with the admittedly more abstract concepts of the system rather than the empirical evidence which you seem to want me to pull out to prove my theory.

    Also, and I will say this again, I am not doing psychology, I don’t think that the right way to read Freud’d death drive is the literal reading. Rather, the death drive should be understood as part of the history of Naturphilosophie as found in Schelling and his followers. As Schelling says early in his career, when he first develops an interest in chemistry, if we are to understand the Spinozist conatus as a striving force, the drive for continued and perpectual existence, we must find an equal oppositional force, which he characterizes as egotism. I think this is the proper way of reading death drive.

  8. I should also add, Kevin, that if you are looking for empirical evidence of a “death drive” in animals, at least in the sense that you are using Freud’s term, I think there is plenty. Many animals will willingly abstain from food after a trauma (or a loss) and some will actually kill themselves. Likewise, many animals, notably elephants, gorillas, and some house pets (I’ve told the story of my family dog before) will mourn the loss of a loved one, causing tremendous changes in behaviour. Again, this is not, strictly speaking, how I am using the term death drive in my metaphysics, but I think it could add some of the evidence you were looking for.

  9. kvond

    Hmmm it almost sounds like you googled “Death Drive” and “animals”…ha.

    Really though, the point is whether one’s metaphysics has any connection to real life conditions, for instance how something qualified as post-human actually deals DIFFERENTLY with non-human phenomena…

    To say that you are not doing a psychology you hit upon the very reasons why Wittgenstein and Pragmaticism did their very best to do away with differences that make no difference in practice. I do think that there is room for metaphysics, but always I find that it is in our descriptions of the world, the concrete world, that metaphysical categories get cashed out, so to speak…and this is different than finding “evidence” for their truth.

    Cheers.

  10. Pingback: A Taxomomy of Evils and the Demoness Ontology of Powers in Vitalism « Frames /sing

  11. Pingback: Zizek on Death Drive « Complete Lies.

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