One of the foundational interests that drives my work (and keeps me up at night) is an interrogation of the notion of life. I specifically mean the unanswered questions that surround concepts that have developed for understanding life as a phenomenon. It seems fairly commonsense that there is a simple distinction between life and non-life, but deeper investigation reveals this distinction to be fuzzy at best. At worst, the division between animate beings and inorganic matter seems to disappear entirely under scrutiny (1). It is in trying to work through alternate ways of conceiving an ontology of living things within a material universe that I spend quite a bit of my creative energy. This is not an idle question. Indeed, the idea that there is a firm and unbridgeable divide between life and non-life is an intellectually maintained Western philosophical position with a very particular history and which presents many problematic implications for politics, ethics, and social action. In this brief essay I hope to outline a materialist position on the life-matter divide and offer some reasons why this question is important.
Let’s start with a little history. Much of our inherited thinking in the West on the idea of life is handed down to us from Descartes and Kant (2). It is to these two figures that we owe the idea of the unbridgeable divide between life and matter. In their formulations, life is precisely that which cannot be reduced to matter. Matter behaves mechanistically, and hence can’t exhibit the free animatedness thought to be a characteristic of living things only. Something different must be at work in the bodies of living things, something potentially nonmaterial. Not only this, but if living things are fundamentally different from ‘inert matter,’ then the human being presents a very special instance of the living thing, as fundamentally different from other life as life is from nonlife. While Kant himself hedged on these ontological categories (3), ultimately his thinking alongside other threads in Enlightenment humanism firmly established the notion of a self-grounding subject in Western thought: an unchangeable, ineffable, transcendent point-of-view which just happens to be exemplified by the figure of the human being. These notions created a rigid hierarchy for any ontology of the universe, with inorganic matter residing at the very bottom, living things standing above matter, the human being standing above all other living things, and with some groups of human beings standing above other human beings and over everything else. This hierarchy was a crucial justification for the domination and exploitation of planetary resources, plant and animal life, and marginalized groups of people by Westerners--domination and exploitation that has continued to the present.
It is ironic that Enlightenment humanism, and the figure of Kant in particular, undoes for Western thought the non-anthropocentric model of the universe provided by the Copernican revolution at the same time that Copernicus’s non-anthropocentrism would come to be a standard assumption for Western science (4). Life, it began to seem, could be explained more and more by mechanistic and materialistic models. Human beings, it began to seem, occupied a less and less significant position in the order of things. Yet, a number times throughout history, particularly in the nineteenth century (but by no means limited to the past), various attempts to preserve the difference between life and non-life resulted in ‘vitalist’ philosophies (5) Vitalism is the idea that some immaterial force must either be added to, or must be actively shaping ‘mere matter’ in order to make a body exhibit life. These vitalisms ranged from highly scientific investigations to completely spiritualist notions. What emerges is that these concepts of a matter-life divide, established in the seventeenth and eighteenth century have constantly reconstituted in Western thought, particularly in response to a scientific enterprise that seemed to contradict such ideas. Often, vitalist thinking was an intellectual move to preserve the primacy of the human in an increasingly nonhuman universe (6). Even within Western science, the division between life and non-life is generally conceived to be a solid fact, that, if not posing an unbridgeable gap, generally provides a stable set of categories for thinking about the universe.
The critical assumption that buttresses this history of thinking about life is the characterization of matter as ‘dead’, ‘inert’, or ‘purely mechanistic’. The question new materialists like myself (7) are asking is “what if matter is not dead, inert, or purely mechanistic?” What if matter is quite a bit different from our traditional way of thinking about it? Indeed, through the lens of a theory of ‘hyperhorror’, the question becomes what if matter is weird?
This idea of a weird materiality is where the world starts to become interesting again (and yes, it’s also where this essay gets interesting again). Weird matter is present but unpredictable. It is promiscuous in its encounters with human beings, but remains excessive to human thought. Characterized by ‘weirdness,’ it resists easy category, interacts in strange, complicated ways, and tangles together in unsanitary, dynamic meshes to change things in the universe. I’ll argue in a later essay that it is precisely this idea of matter as weird that underlies the most important fiction of pulp horror author Howard Phillips Lovecraft (8). Weird materialism does some radical things to thinking about the universe. On one end, it begins to gesture toward eliminating the need for any sort of transcendent outside to make things happen, whether that transcendence is a deity, deified human subjectivity, or some immaterial force shaping matter into living bodies. On the other end, it re-shapes the ontology of the universe from the bottom up, progressively collapsing all hierarchical positions into itself, without reducing anything to some monistic, essential substance. Weird matter gets to be fully differentiated and yet remain fully material.
There are two basic ways that this idea gets mobilized for me. First, the aforementioned collapse of hierarchical distinctions has consequences for an ontology of life. That is, life itself is composed of weird matter, with nothing needing to be added. Life can then be thought of as one strange manifestation of matter’s inherent weirdness. This means that as we imaginatively venture out of our comfortable categories, towards the frontiers of what we tend to think of as ‘the living world’, we confront a spectral border world of life behaving as if ‘mere matter’ and matter behaving as if alive, and some things, quite uncomfortably, seeming to do neither (9). We confront objects that confuse our distinctions--living bodies that advertise their sheer materiality in ways that jar our own natural sense of subjectivity and affectiveness, and material processes of a seemingly geochemical nature that nonetheless appear to organize in sophisticated, yet non-teleological ways. Ambiguity, uncanny dynamism, and vortical aggregation characterize this dark, sticky realm of unlife. Whatever life once was conceived to be, it now takes place as site and process, emerging in the interaction between teeming substances, or as a thermodynamic black market (10) for laundering energy in its entropic lurch towards an irreversible, static, cosmic cadaverosity.
When we attempt to flee these zones of spectral alien life and animate, pestilential geology, we find that this spectrality follows us. In the literal sense, life begins to be seen as existing on a spectrum of material interaction. It emerges as a distinct possibility that the phenomenon of life (and its corresponding category), while stable for the time being, may not even occupy an extreme end of that spectrum--there may be interactions beyond life as we know it, higher-order configurations of matter in elaborations of increasing complexity. This view begins to dissolve the familiar world of the living--mundane objects take on strange expressions of their own as we begin to suspect their weirder inner worlds. Animals, from insects to household pets reappear as cavorting agglutinations of uncanny matter. The human body begins to shift its shape, and behave in unpredictable ways as we suddenly see through its camouflage (11). Human culture and politics are recast as participations in massive, churning, unhuman planetary systems with their own ends in mind, completely indifferent to our intentions or our suffering (12). Even our vaunted, impregnable subjectivity disintegrates as we recognize that the masquerade of humanness is plagued by inconsistencies. In short, we begin to see the sludge, which brings me to my second mobilization of weird materialism.
Weird matter is entangled. The myriad swirling properties and withdrawn subterranean worlds of its teeming bodies don’t merely bump into each other in the universe. They are stuck together, pulling on each other. Weird matter has a corrosive aspect that exceeds and overwhelms categories and dissolves ontological hierarchies (13). But it has this additional property in that it is adhesive. Material bodies form aggregates that, in relation, produce shifting zones of agency that can affect and change things (14). No weird matter is free of this entangled state, everything is submerged. Radically different agents and entities can find themselves enmeshed in these unsanitary networks: geologic phenomena, local economies, bacterial agents, insect bodies, chemical actants, planetary surfaces, machine prosthetics, human beings and groups, climatological systems, plant populations, and mineralogical detritus. These aggregates can be truly described as cybernetic--assemblages of unlike things out of which agentic potential arises. These cybernetic assemblages swirl together in larger and larger aggregate systems, acting in concert, in conflict, in total indifference, but always submerged in this convecting, motile, heterogeneous sludge.
In such a sludge ontology, the articulations between matter and its ‘living’ subset are rendered completely continuous. No self-propelling agency can be left to the human actor, whose boundaries with the world are shown to be constantly dissolving, and whose entire makeup is shown to be a temporary agglutination of the material sludge shot through with sticky ties to countless other agents whose motivations and trajectories are ulterior at best. All human arenas, from media and culture to technology and politics, are recast as unintended conspiracies with radically unhuman agents producing tangential, spiraling, mediated effects--effects which often feed back into these vortical (15) systems rendering their stability or fluctuation a matter of stochastic caprice. Complexity becomes the defining characteristic, the mapping of which collapses human theorization into a roiling protoplasm of material recalcitrance. Life itself becomes nothing less than a willing and exuberant double-agent in the participatory manipulation of a massive, churning universe of clotted, duplicitous matter. The sludge flows, but there’s no progression, no overarching teleology to its tending. The sludge doesn’t discard primitive forms or favor any kind of advancement. It just churns, fully immanent, utterly distributed, with no abstract ideals residing in a transcendent beyond to ground its temporary arrangements. It generates through decay. The only discernible directionality is thermodynamic and that direction is toward eventual stillness and cold. But in the meantime, the sludge is restless. Energy is still in abundance. The vortices still turn. All manner of unseemly, and incomprehensible complications can arise. The universe can harbor anything in this material soup, and that might be one of the major horrors: with no outside, every alien alterity; every complex, multidimensional entity; every seething abysmal conglomeration; every obscure, untheorizable eruption is from here--from this universe--revealing the vast, unplumbed confines of cosmos we find ourselves in, and the staggering inadequacy of human knowledge and understanding.
All of this talk of the weird materiality of life and the mechanics of material sludge describes an essentially shoggothic conception of matter--the plasticity, mimesis, recalcitrance, multiplicity, complicity, ambiguity, dynamism, insurgency, and heterogeneity delineating a kind of shoggoth-kinetics. This weird materiality, this shoggothic kinesis, mobilizes against longstanding myths of the Western human being--obsessively hygienic, arrogant, and exploitative myths of human separateness, human transcendence, and human dominance. In the next essay, I’ll expound in greater detail upon the ecological commitments of such a weird materialism, and how the ethical engagement entailed can use the invertebrate animal as the test-site for navigating our weird obligations to the vast nonhuman world.
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Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost (eds.). New Materialisms. Duke University Press. 2010.
Jabr, Ferris. “Why Life Does Not Really Exist.” Scientific American Blogs. 2012. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/2013/12/02/why-life-does-not-really-exist/
Mackay, Robin (ed.). Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development. Volume VI. Urbanomic. 2010.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. Vintage. 1992.
Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Bloomsbury Academic. 2010.
Negarestani, Reza. Cyclonopedia. Re:Press. 2008
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Shaviro, Steven. The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism. University of Minnesota Press. 2014
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Woodard, Ben. “A Nature to Pulp the Stoutest Philosopher: Towards a Lovecraftian Philosophy of Nature.” Real Horror. 2010. http://realhorror.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/ben-woodard-a-nature-to-pulp-the-stoutest-philosopher-towards-a-lovecraftian-philosophy-of-nature/#more-64
arts educator, painter, drawist, heavy metal enthusiast, and long-time Lovecraft fan