Enlightenment philosophy is founded on a fear of the ocean. We seek predictability, limits, and boundaries because we want to block out the inevitability of chaos, death, and chance. Attempts to circumscribe our voyages only repress what we fear and guarantee that it will be expressed in another place and time. The project of our affirmative is to explore this ocean without refuge, to give up on the myth of a safe harbor.
LAND 1992 (Nick Land is a lecturer in Continental Philosophy at Warwick University, The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism 75-9 IMPORTANT NOTE: parts in italics are quotations in the text from Kant. Kant is the bad guy. He’s going for framework against Bataille. You probably want to preserve that formatting.)
Of the ‘terrain of pure understanding’ Kant says:
This domain is an island, enclosed by nature itself within unalterable limits. It is the land of truth—enchanting name!—surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion [K III 267–8].
Is not transcendental philosophy a fear of the sea? Something like a dike or a sea-wall? A longing for the open ocean gnaws at us, as the land is gnawed by the sea. A dark fluidity at the roots of our nature rebels against the security of terra firma, provoking a wave of anxiety in which we are submerged, until we feel ourselves drowning, with representation draining away. Nihil ulterius
We are not amphibians, but belong upon solid earth. Let us renounce all strange
voyages. The age of desire is past. The new humanity I anticipate has no use for
enigmatic horizons; it knows the ocean is madness and disease. Let me still your ancient
tremors, and replace them with dreams of an iron shore.
Reason in its legitimate function is a defence against the sea, which is also an inhibition of the terrestrial; retarding our tendency to waste painstakingly accumulated resources in futile expeditions, a ‘barrier opposed to the expenditure offerees’ [II 332] as Bataille describes it. It is a fortified boundary, sealing out everything uncertain, irresolvable, dissolvant, a sea-wall against the unknown, against death. This is a structure continuous with the great land reclamation projects of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen: a matter of drainage, rigorous separation of the wet and the dry, eradication of marshes and ambiguous terrains, rigidification of the soil (‘the mosquitos and other stinging insects that make the wilds of America so trying for the savages, may be so many goads to urge these primitive men to drain the marshes and bring light into the dense forests that shut out the air, and, by so doing, as well as by the tillage of the soil, to render their abodes more sanitary’ [K X 328]). Such terrestrialism reaches its zenith in Prussia’s classic age; in the restriction of policy to continental ambitions. It is thus characterized by a certain hardness; a certain deliberate blindness towards death, as towards everything that flows freely like a wound.
Unlike either Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, who in different ways seek to place themselves outside the ambit of an Occidental history dominated by the monotheistic order of the supreme object, and to connect with the east Asiatic zero that contests it, Bataille seems to resign himself to a struggle without refuge against the One. Far more even than Nietzsche, Bataille thinks of zero as a subtraction from One—as the death of God—and approaches it in anguish. In this way he aligns himself with a procedure of immense influence upon the course of European modernity, that of a progressive problematization from unity, harmonized with the dissolution of sedentary community. The most powerful example of such thinking is to be found in the cultural heartland of capital, which is to say, in the critical philosophy initiated by Kant.
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Bataille ‘interrupts’ [V 29] Inner Experience in order to make a few pages of remarks about Hinduism, in a section which ends with a technical argument designed to reinforce his claim to be no more interested in liberation from rebirth than in any other type of salvation. He compares the asceticism of Hinduism to that of Christianity, distancing himself from both in the name of excess, and pretends to no affinity with ‘the naïvety— the purity—of the Hindu’ [V 30]. Perhaps most important of all is the affirmation of mess and inadequacy implicit in the words: ‘I do not doubt that the Hindus go far into the impossible, but to the highest degree they lack that which matters to me; the faculty of expression’ [V 31]. It is because he is a writer that Bataille disdains to be a mystic. In what he understands of the Hindu religion—and he lays claim to no intimate knowledge of it—there is one tenet alone to which he unconditionally subscribes: ‘[o]nly intensity matters’ [V 29].
Inner experience translates mysticism into a vagrant vocabulary at the scurf-edge of tradition. As the initial gesture of a Summa Atheologica, it begins amongst the ruins of God. Echoing Céline—that other wretched tramp of nihilism—he calls experience ‘a voyage to the end of the possible of man’ [V 19], and thinks interiority not as the secret recess of the self, but as a plane of contact and contagion. The core of inner experience is not personal identity, but naked intensity, denuded even of oneself, and jutting from the refuse of Christian dogmatics as a broken lurch into the unknown. He insists: ‘inner experience is ecstasy’ whilst ‘ecstasy is…communication, opposing itself to the subsidence onto oneself [V 24].
It is the order of the object that organizes inner experience as private reverie, and as a detachment from relation. Above all it is the God of monotheism—the supreme or absolute being—which reproduces the prison of individuation at the scale of the cosmos. This is why the ecstasy of the unknown, which gnaws away the last landmarks from Bataille’s voyage, contests any possible resurrection of theological edifices. As he remarks:
I hold the apprehension of God, even when formless and without mode…for an arrest of the movement which carries us to the more obscure apprehension of the unknown…[V 17].
An utter intoxication such as this is quite different from its Kantian anticipation,although Kant too contests the right of dogmatic theology to guide his journey: Nothing but the sobriety of a critique, at once strict and just, can free us from this dogmatic delusion, which through the lure of an imagined felicity keeps so many in bondage to theories and systems. Such a critique confines all our speculative claims rigidly to the field of possible experience; and it does this not by shallow scoffing at ever-repeated failures or pious sighs over the limits of our reason, but by an effective determining of these limits in accordance with established principles, inscribing nihil ulterius on those Pillars of Hercules which nature herself has erected in order that the voyage of our reason may be extended no further than the continuous coastline of experience itself reaches—a coast we cannot leave without venturing upon a shoreless ocean which, after alluring us with ever-deceptive prospects, compels us in the end to abandon as hopeless all this vexatious and tedious endeavour [K IV 392– 3].
For Kant it is not enough to have reached the ocean, the shoreless expanse, the nihil ulterius as positive zero. He recognizes the ocean as a space of absolute voyage, and thus of hopelessness and waste. Only another shore would redeem it for him, and that is nowhere to be found. Better to remain on dry land than to lose oneself in the desolation of zero. It is for this reason that he says the ‘concept of a noumenon is…a merely limiting concept’ [K IV 282].
In this way the Occidental obsession with the object consummates itself in the blind passivity of its nihilism. Beyond experience, it is suggested, there must be thought ‘an unknown something’ [K III 283], although ‘we are unable to comprehend how such noumena can be possible’ [K III 281]. More precisely: [The noumenon]…is not indeed in any way positive, and is not a determinate knowledge of anything, but signifies only the thought of something in general, in which I abstract from everything that belongs to the form of sensible intuition [KIII 281].
That no transcendent object is found is an event which retains the sense of a lost or absent object, rather than that of a contact with or through objectlessness. The ocean has no sense except as a failure of the land. Even whilst supposedly knowing nothing of the noumenon, which, we are told, has ‘no assignable meaning’ [K III 303], one somehow still knows that it would be something other than objectless waste without end, or the void-plane touched upon at zero-intensity. Kant is peculiarly adamant in this respect:
[W]e cannot think of any way in which such intelligible objects might be given. The problematic thought which leaves open a place for them serves only, like an empty space, for the limitation of empirical principles, without itself containing or revealing any other object of knowledge beyond the sphere of those principles [K III 285].
The noumenon is the absence of the subject, and is thus inaccessible in principle to experience. If there is still a so-called ‘noumenal subject’ in the opening phase of the critical enterprise it is only because a residue of theological reasoning conceives a stratum of the self which is invulnerable to transition, or synonymous with time as such. This is the ‘real’ or ‘deep’ subject, the self or soul, a subject that sloughs-off its empirical instantiation without impairment, the immortal subject of mortality. It only remains for Hegel to rigorously identify this subject with death, with the death necessitated by the allergy of Geist to its finitude, to attain a conception of deaths for itself. But this is all still the absence of the subject, even when ‘of’ is translated into the subjective genitive, and at zero none of it makes any difference.
With Kant death finds its theoretical formulation and utilitarian frame as a quasiobjectivity correlative to capital, and noumenon is its name. The effective flotation of this term in philosophy coincided with the emergence of a social order built upon a profound rationalization of excess, or rigorous circumscription of voluptuous lethality. Once enlightenment rationalism begins its dominion ever fewer corpses are left hanging around in public places with each passing year, ever fewer skulls are used as paperweights, and ever fewer paupers perish undisturbed on the streets. Even the graveyards are rationalized and tidied up. It is not surprising, therefore, that with Kant thanatology undergoes the most massive reconstruction in its history. The clerical vultures are purged, or marginalized. Death is no longer to be culturally circulated, injecting a transcendent reference into production, and ensuring superterrestrial interests their rights. Instead death is privatized, withdrawn into interiority, to flicker at the edge of the contract as a narcissistic anxiety without public accreditation. Compared to the immortal soul of capital the death of the individual becomes an empirical triviality, a mere re-allocation of stock.
In the Analytic of the Sublime in his Third Critique Kant tentatively raises the possibility that we might taste death—even if only through a ‘negative pleasure’—but nowhere does he raise the possibility that death might savage us. Even when positivized as noumenon, death remains locked in the chain of connotations that passes through matter, inertia, femininity, and castration, resting in its pacified theistic sense as toothless resource and malleable clay. There is no place, no domain, for base matter in Kant’s thinking, since even auto-generativity in nature is conceived as a regulative analogue of rational willing. One must first unleash the noumenon from its determination as problematic object in order to glimpse that between matter and death there is both a certain identity and an intricate relation, or, in other words: a unilateral difference appending matter to the edge of zero. Not that this complicity has anything to do with the inertia crucial to the mathematical idealization of matter, or with any other kind of mechanical sterility. Matter is no more simply dead than it is simply anything else, because simplicity is the operator of the transcendent disjunction between subject and object which effaces base materiality. The death ‘proper’ to matter is the jagged edge of its impropriety, its teeth.
If death can bite it is not because it retains some fragment of a potency supposedly proper to the object, but because it remains uncaged by the inhibition objectivity entails. Death alone is utterly on the loose, howling as the dark motor of storms and epidemics. After the ruthless abstraction of all life the blank savagery of real time remains, for it is the reality of abstraction itself that is time: the desert, death, and desolator of all things. Bataille writes of ‘the ceaseless slippage of everything into nothing. If one wants, time’ [V 137], and thinks of himself as ‘a tooth of TIME’ [I 558]. It could also be said—in a more Nietzschean vein—that zero-becoming has its metaphor in a bird of prey, for which every object is a lamb.
Repression always fails, but nowhere is there a more florid example of such failure than the attempt to bury death quietly on the outskirts of the city and get down to business. Only the encrusted historical superficies of zero are trapped in the clay, distilling death down to its ultimate liquidity, and maximizing its powers of infiltration. Marx notes this filtration process in Capital, where he remarks about money/death that it ‘does not vanish on dropping out of the circuit of the metamorphosis of a given commodity. It is constantly being precipitated into new places in the arena of circulation vacated by other commodities’ [Cap 114]. Dead labour is far harder to control than the live stuff was, which is why the enlightenment project of interring gothic superstition was the royal road to the first truly vampiric civilization, in which death alone comes to rule.
Fascism, too, is founded on a fear of the ocean. Mass exterminations are the result of a desire to cleanse and purify our community, to resist the unknown by drawing limits and isolating us from the real of blood and death. The obsession with policy will lead us nowhere—only a focus on poetry, language without an instrumental purpose, as a resistance to literal, limiting thought undermines the conditions of possibility for misery and atrocity