In Conspiracy, Thomas Ligotti traces a lineage of pessimist thinkers over the last few centuries. The book’s central Conspiracy is the way humans uphold the illusion of life’s preciousness rather than taking the mature, collective decision to opt out on a grande scale. Not every pessimistic writer though makes the cut; to be part of Ligotti’s inner circle one has to really mean it. Some of the cited writers in Conspiracy committed suicide right after having written down their main argument. The pessimist bar is therefore high. It makes the book more dangerous too. Ligotti is a gifted non-fiction writer and some distinct humour adds instances of comic relief (ok they are neither comic, nor a relief). Ligotti’s argument is far too precious to him and he would never betray his ideas by ironic distancing effects. His twisted, dry yet ‘funny’ comments inject humour not to bring relief, rather they expose the hollowness behind the conspiracy (Examples, italics by Ligotti: ‘But one must take into account that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise (p. 182). As for those people who still go about their ordinary, average business complacently enjoying the skies of spring and the flowers of summer, innocently unaware of the monstrosities with which they coexist – they are children (p. 193). Rather than being a visionary or a prophet, Zapffe was an analyst of disaster, and his pessimism is nothing if not down to earth (p. 176). Yet even the consolations of bleakness have their limits for those who treasure philosophical and literary works of pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence. And should bleakness itself fail them, they have been failed indeed (p. 152). While the abolishment of human life would be sufficient for the average pessimist, the terminal stage of Mainländer’s wishful thought was the full summoning of a ‘Will-to-die’ that by his deduction resided in all matter across the universe. (…) Unsurprisingly, the work never set the philosophical world ablaze (p. 35) – lol).
The whole book refers to this massive withdrawal gesture (total human self-annhilation by educated choice). Ligotti is well aware that it would be difficult to convince all humans to commit to such gesture. He knows that the radical pessimists he reads, admires and cites are minor underground figures (except hero Schopenhauer and problem child Nietzsche who does not fully make it into the club). Nevertheless Ligotti does as much believe in these writers as he wishes for a discontinuation of the human race (which goes hand in hand of course). This book is Ligotti searching and finding allies for his unpopular cause. The book remains a lucid, philosophical musing in an antinatalist vein. And Ligotti gives some good insights into the conspiracy itself, the inner workings of the massive facades humans erected to act out their not so elaborate puppet plays. Ligotti is at his most intense when writing about puppets coming alive, human puppets, essentially. This is his craft as a supernatural horror author – his real job. As Lovecraft, Ligotti finds relief in the supernatural, the immaterial, cosmic weirdness that inhabits all conscious worlds. For Ligotti, the rise of consciousness was the single most incisive error event that ever took place. Conspiracy can be seen as promoting a natural corrective to this event, namely to undo consciousness.
Conspiracy is important, not just for its True Detective prominence (series creator Nic Pizzolatto took elements of Conspiracy for modelling the Rusty Cohle character with his ligottiesque worldview – Nihil Unbound by Ray Brassier and In the Dust of this Planet by Eugene Thacker being other important sources), but for its radically honest and non-conformist attitude. Ligotti loves the writers he cites, did some profound research. You can sense that he would go far to find a decisive fragment of pessimist writing he heard of. The question remains why Ligotti keeps on writing and thinking, rather than going straight back into the no sphere. Yes, reading and writing probably keeps him alive. Ligotti is a book-being. Supernatural literature is his nourishing mother. The supernatural ideas shining through the books he cherishes hint at other spheres beyond human consciousness. Ligotti may find moments of solace from the dark theoretical texts he seeks out. There is a sharing element to written down pessimism. One witnesses first hand how someone else knew that living was and is ‘not right’. If one shares his or her (the total absence of cited women writers in Conspiracy is a massive black hole) inner most relation to life or the wish to be no-one, the resulting text fascinate and might find admirers. Ligotti in turn will have his own receptive readers, and many, myself included, will come from an Urbanomic or True Detective
connection and will read Conspiracy from an aesthetic-weird-entertainment angle, rather than literally follow the arguments made (which is probably ‘healthier’).
Heinz, comic strip by René Windig and Eddie de Jong (1987) – Ligotti’s fate?
Diving into the book, into Ligotti’s mind (god no), here a footnote on the last page of the book: ‘One cringes to hear scientists cooing over the universe or any part thereof like schoolgirls over-heated by their first crush. From the studies of Krafft-Ebbing onward, we know that it is possible to become excited about anything – from shins to shoehorns. But it would be nice if just one of these gushing eggheads would step back and, as a concession to objectivity, speak the truth: THERE IS NOTHING INNATELY IMPRESSIVE ABOUT THE UNIVERSE OR ANYTHING IN IT.’ (p. 246, uppercase letters by Ligotti). Here, Ligotti is at his most direct, but throughout the book he takes a calmer, more investigative approach, even if he doesn’t give an inch.
PUPPET REALM: NONENTITIES
Here a few quotes building up to Ligotti’s central essay on puppets, ‘Nonentities’ where Ligotti talks about neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger, the supposed Self, Puppets and James Trafford’s essay on Metzinger and Ligotti.
Wether we are sovereign or enslaved in our being, what of it? Our species will still look to the future and see no need to abdicate its puppet dance of replication in a puppet universe where the strings pull themselves. (p. 226)
Why has He not have brought forth a universe that is one great puppet show destined by Him to be crunched or scattered until an absolute nothingness had been established? (p. 37)
Someone is there, so we feel, and yet no one is there – the uncanny paradox, all the horror in a glimpse. (p. 42)
It is pessimist because it turns the human image into a puppet image. And a puppet image of humanity is one of the hallmarks of pessimism. (p. 95)
Everything comes back to the self and must come back to the self, for it is the utmost issue in our deciding wether we are something or nothing, people or puppets. (p. 98)
But we do agree that, if only in practice, we are all real-live selves, since we are all self-conscious. And once we have passed through every door that qualifies our selves in some way – be it by name, nationality, occupation, gender, or show size – we then stand before the door of consciousness – parent of all horrors. And that is all there is to our existence. (p. 104)
In Metzinger’s schema, a human being is not a ‘person’ but a mechanistically functioning ‘phenomenal self-model’ that simulates a person. (p. 105)
Nonentities (pp. 106-113) thinks through the puppet layers humanity set up for itself. By extensively citing neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger, Ligotti locates the most decisive ‘puppet barrier’ within ourselves (hint: we do not make it across the barrier).
In his essay ‘The Shadow of a Puppet Dance: Metzinger, Ligotti and the Illusion of Selfhood’ (Collapse IV, May 2008), James Trafford breaks down Metzinger’s Paradox as follows: ‘The object ‘man’ consists of tightly packed layers of simulation, for which naive realism becomes a necessary prophylactic in order to ward off the terror concomitant with the destruction of our intuitions regarding ourselves and our status in the world: ‘Conscious subjectivity is the case in which a single organism has learned to enslave itself.’ The closing quote from Metzinger’s Being No One might be seen as an extension of Zapffe’s Paradox, by dint of which we repress from our consciousness all that is startling and dreadful in our lives. For Metzinger, this repression takes the form of the aforesaid naive realism, which masks the single most startling and dreadful revelation for human beings: that we are not what we think we are. Assuaging our qualms about such a deplorable enlightenment, Metzinger avers that it is ‘practically impossible’ for us to attain realization of our unreality due to inbuilt manacles of human perception that keep our minds in a dream state. (p. 106)
We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does. (p. 111)
What else could a neurophilosopher believe – that we should give up on ourselves and go extinct? Metzinger must have faith that once the rest of humanity has seen through the game, we will – in all sincerity and not as pretenders – play through to a world in which day by day, in every way, we are getting better and better. But that will take time – lots of it. (p. 111)
How will the human race feel about knowing that there is no human race – that there is no one? Would this be the end of the greatest horror tale ever told? (p. 112)
Worth noting, puppet plays are local and global phenomena, puppet-like figures seem to appear in all places on earth. Puppet play unites humanity. But what stands above the human puppets? According to Ligotti, probably No One there; the strings pull themselves, eternally. Thinking about puppets as a global phenomena, one could be tempted to extend Ligotti’s line of thinking into more international contexts. Japan for example must have its own Ligottis, unique pessimist thinkers, writers or other artists that reflect on humans as puppet beings. Think of Japanese history of suicide rituals or the complex Noh and Bunraku theatre. See below the first minutes of Dolls by Takeshi Kitano which features a Bunraku play. Life as a transitory event is common in Japanese poetry too, especially in Haikus.
ドールズ Dolls (Directed by Takeshi Kitano, 2002)
and a Bunraku pupeteer explaining the inner working of Bunraku puppets (more on Bunraku in a later blog entry – Bunraku in connection to my In the Museum and ESGS film series).
Bunraku theatre does not alter the uncanny resemblance of humans and puppets. But a serious reflection on puppets should at least mention Bunraku or similar cultural traditions, as they actively and practically think through all kinds of notions surrounding puppets. It takes up to 40 years for a Bunraku Master to manipulate the puppets main hand. One could easily say that these 40+ years do not influence or alter anything. But then – and Ligotti does make similar comments – isn’t art, in all its variety, the only card we have to live, reflect, understand, witness the general weirdness of being No – One?
Then also Mamoru Oshii’s Ghosts in the Shell 2: Innocence with its reflections on the porous borders between humans and Non-Humans. Just to say that Ligotti is one in a global network of artists and thinkers who see the human being as a puppet-like entity, far from being understood, far from understanding itself, its selfness, its consciousness. The conspiracy is upheld, but not left untouched.
PROMETHEAN VIBES/ESCAPE STRATEGIES
At times Ligotti can appear as being in favour of a Promethean thinking. Mankind would, after centuries of upholding the conspiracy, see through the puppet state and get some degree of control over its puppet-being. Sadly, Ligotti never really elaborates on such Promethean trajectories. Reading his thoughts on the Self and the necessary overcoming of it, a Promethean self-elevation of humanity would certainly ask for a completely different ecology Selves, a Posthuman era in which individual Self preciousness would be reconsidered or replaced by more encompassing Selves-regulations. But for Ligotti, such Self reconsidering steps can hardly take place in an environment that fully dwells in an illusionary puppet landscape: An individual’s demarcations as a being, not his trespass of them, create his identity and preserve his illusion of being something special and not a freak of chance, a product of blind mutations. Transcending all illusions and their emergent activities – having absolute control of what we are and not what we need to be so that we may survive the most unsavory facts of life and death – would untether us from moorings of our self-limited selves. The lesson: ‘Let us love our limitations, for without them no-body would be left to be somebody.’ (p. 33-34)
Ligotti actually dedicates an essay on Transhumanism (pp.124.127) and shows his more sceptical side: But it is not as if being posthuman is an idea first conceived in the late twentieth century. In its search for the ‘good,’ or at least the better, it recapitulates our most ancient fantasies. (p. 126)
Transhumanism encapsulates a long-lived error among the headliners of science: In a world without a destination, we cannot even break ground on our Tower of Babel, and no amount of rush and hurry on our part will change that. (p. 127)
Classic Ligotti: Yet one possibility transhumanists have not wrestled with is that the ideal being standing at the end of evolution may deduce that the best of all possible worlds is useless, if not malignant, and that the self-extinction of our future selves would be the optimal course to take. (p. 128)
Hope, Ligotti-style?: While (Lovecraft’s) personal use for atmosphere was to facilitate a sense of cosmic laws being overturned and human experience being transcended, he also defined the general purpose of atmosphere in horror stories: to give consistency (mood) to an imagined world in which we can at least pretend to escape from our mere humanity and enter into spaces where the human has no place and dies to itself wither weeping or screaming or in awe at the horror of existence. Here lies the paradox of consuming horror as an escapist venture. (p. 184)
It must be remembered that the atmosphere of a supernatural world and its horror exist only in the human imagination. There is nothing like it in nature, nor can nature provoke it. It is a contrivance of our consciousness, and only we can know it among all the organisms of the earth. We are alone in our minds with the atmosphere of a supernatural world and its horror. We are both its creators and what it has created – uncanny things that have nothing to do with the rest of creation.
Ligotti writes about The Thing by John Carpenter and the Body Snatchers films, yet it is Prometheus by Ridley Scott that raises the uncanny questions. What are human puppets in an interstellar setting? What if there is a puppet master somewhere that coexists with us? Prometheus portrays the ambivalent and fragile puppet – puppeteer relation. Did the engineer race of Prometheus designed us? Why would they want to destroy us now? There are many unresolved questions, and maybe Prometheus 2: Paradise (coming 2016 or 17) might answer some of these questions. Notable in connection to Ligotti is the dark aesthetic universe of the engineers (H.R. Giger aestetics – another co-explorer of the great unknown). Prometheus is of course a Hollywood ‘mainstream’ production, yet the issues the film raises are not entirely dissimilar to the ones evoked in Ligotti’s Conspiracy.
As for humans, can they at some point reach interstellar presence and inhabit planets in different galaxies? Or, before such an expansion, will humans reach a point where they can build new organisms from scratch and become engineers themselves? What sort of responsibility would that entail? In what new ethical universe would humanity then enter? And these new beings, will they know and learn more than their conceivers and, in an Oedipal twist (like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica) outsmart them and then again become creators of strange new lifeforms? There is no end in the puppet – puppeteer line of thinking and the queerness of who conceived who can reach new heights. Ligotti would probably bundle these visions together and dismiss them all as variations of puppet states. But not so sure that would render justice to the by then cosmic mindfuck. Maybe Ligotti secretly wishes all to end before it reaches proportions of interstellar horror (I can see his point there, but then I would like to see it happen too). The question remains: What to do AS puppets – or puppeteers? Does becoming puppet masters automatically mean to repeat the nonsense? We are on our way to become movers of worlds, think of Minecraft and other powerful videogames that will merge with reality soon enough. On a smartphone, we can move goods around and even change destinies. God – or whatever alien race it was – might have created earth in 7 days via sophisticated terraforming technology, plus DNA engineering devices. And then, at a later stage, sent a Jesus clone to open our eyes, somewhat.
The last engineer reads Prometheus. Another No One? (Production still of Prometheus by Ridley Scott)
THOMAS AND VIC
As a final note, there are surprising parallels between Ligotti and singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, especially their shared personal, pessimistic, yet humorous, insightful outlook. Chesnutt’s songs can be intense laments about the torture that life can be, or jovial musings on the ambivalent state of things. Chesnutt openly sang about suicidal tendencies and dark inclinations in earnest ways. Through the music (as Ligotti through books), a sublimation of sorts take place and the listener can take part of Vic’s thoughts and sufferings. Again, art offers at least some possibilities for sharing and disseminating anger or other types of complex emotions. Vic and Thomas – radical, earth bound beings – give insight into supernatural spheres, including the spheres’ potentially massive indifference towards human beings.
and of course his epic ‘Distortiion’ which features in In the Museum 1
What’s the big deal?
It’s impossible to know what is and isn’t sealed
Faith is the lies we tell and tell ourselves
Life is the lies we tell everybody else
History is a daisy chain of lies
Humans love distortion
Public record is a poetic device
Blown way out of all proportion
[Spoken:] I look at the color red, and say ‘red’.
everyone else looks at the color and says ‘reddish’.
we all say I don’t believe it til I see it,
but so much happens between light in the eye and assimilation of that data in the consciousness.
a symbol beam bending, or .. Or experienced anomalies
or electrical distortion along the optic nerve.
but more mysterious are the magnetic osmotics
sloshing around inside the hi-falutin grey filter switchboard that is brain.
Miles of rough road!
Vital baggage is tossled gore, tossed off the truck
Everyone sees it in a certain way, everyone knows it as only they can know it,
and everyone has things that only they can see
Understanding breaks down,
Gulfs in agreement develop
..[old greekdoms??] Crumble
We all define the stuffs and stages of our worlds with terse tags and populist generalities.
We all know a rose, is sometimes a rose
But what fucking color is it? what fucking color is it
Everybody fibs, myths are entertained
Delusions are encouraged and/or covertly ingrained
Faith is the lies we tell and tell ourselves
Life is the lies we tell everybody else
Common knowledge is a daisy chain of lies
Humans love distortion
Civilization is costume revery, culture by coercion