In the Dust of This Planet

66dfc2702f22fe40bf22b6faf95a9dbcIn the Dust of This Planet is a strange little book. It’s main thesis is that “‘horror’ is a non-philosophical attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically.” (p. 9) Horror, in this sense, derives from the thought that there is a non-human world, cut off and unconcerned with human existence. The author of this book, Eugene Thacker, never really establishes this point with argumentation, but rather uses it as the foundation for a series of short, fragmentary, but thematically related, meditations and reflections on a whole variety of topics ranging from black metal, demonology and mysticism, to literature, film, and philosophy. It is like a scrapbook of ideas that is at times fascinating and at other times downright weird.

My interest was immediately provoked by the author’s promise that he would address “the horror of philosophy” rather than the “philosophy of horror.” This struck me as a clever and novel shift in perspective. “The philosophy of horror” suggests an attempt to philosophize about horror, perhaps by looking for its essential characteristics in various experiential, literary and cinematic forms. On the other hand, “the horror of philosophy” suggests the converse: an examination of philosophy itself, with an emphasis on identifying philosophy’s own “horrific” aspects. According to Thacker, we find these horrific aspects in philosophical works – like those of Schopenhauer and Kant – that attempt to articulate the existence of a non-anthropomorphic and essentially unknowable world independent from, and unmoved by, human understanding. This is what Thacker calls “the world without-us.” (p. 6) The idea that there is such a world is the source of the horrific, according to Thacker, and he applies this notion throughout the rest of his book to brief discussions of, not just philosophy, but also music, fiction, occultism, and poetry.

My favorite sections of this book come, Nietzsche-like, as lightning bolts out of the blue. I have already mentioned the first of these “lightning bolts,” which appears in the prologue. This is Thacker’s clever perspectival shift from the “philosophy of horror” to the “horror of philosophy.” The second “lightning bolt” comes in the second chapter, where, while addressing the issue of occult philosophy, Thacker articulates the thought-provoking idea that while the world in-itself may be something inaccessible to human understanding and experience, its very inaccessibility reveals a quality that is indeed graspable by humans. This quality is the hiddenness of the world. (p. 53) This “hideous” and horrific truth makes present to us the idea that our own human world exists alongside another sort of world, indifferent and closed off to us, implying that we are not the center of the universe.

In the second chapter, this last realization takes front stage, and in its light (or darkness?) the author offers short readings of various pieces of literature, television shows, movies and even of Carl Schmitt! I especially enjoyed the “Excursus on Mists and Ooze,” which notes the role played by these slippery, slimy and amorphous entities in a number of horror stories and films. This section of Thacker’s book reminded me of the section in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in which he likens the nature of “slime” to the in-itself world of non-human existence. Lightning bolt number three.

Besides these three lightning strikes, there are a number of things in this book that I found disappointing. The first chapter confused me. After the promising prologue, Chapter One jumps into a discussion of black metal music and demonology without much preparation. As I read this section I was lost, not understanding the relevance of the examples or what connection this all had to the “horror of philosophy,” which was the theme established  in the prologue.

Another weird aspect of this book is the author’s irregular adoption of a Medieval strategic framework of approach. Chapter One is structured around an initial quaestio (question) followed by an articulus (articulation of themes), sed contra (counterarguments) and finally a responsio (response to the counterarguments). This strategy is carried though in the first section, then in the second and third sections a different strategy, also inspired by Medieval thought, is applied. In the final section, the strategy is abandoned altogether, and the author simply comments on the stanzas of a poem. The decision to approach some of the material in scholastic form starts the investigation off on an intriguing note – and I was more than eager to play along – but dropping this approach later on left me feeling like I was reading two separate books. For me, it would have been nice if Thacker carried through with one single, cohesive approach throughout.

In general, In the Dust of This Planet is more like a grab bag of ideas than it is a cohesive philosophical text. Interesting ideas are touched upon, but are never developed in depth. It is the sort of book you can dip into momentarily, put down, and then come back to repeatedly without losing a chain of argumentation. Not really a systematic work of philosophical reasoning, this is a book that seems intended mainly to express an attitude and adopt a pose concerning the place of humans in the universe; one that is unapologetically dark and pessimistic.

This may be part of the reason it has had such an impact on popular culture. In the Dust of This Planet was an influence on the writers of the television show True Detective, it’s cover has appeared in fashion magazines as well as in a Jay Z music video. Eugene Thacker has appeared as a guest on the program Radiolab, and was subsequently attacked by Glen Beck (who, judging from his comments, appears not to have read the book or to even understand what nihilism is!). Thacker himself expresses surprise at all of the media attention, stating in an interview on the New School website that it is “just another part of the media circus.”

Whatever it is that the popular media has found so compelling, I was entertained enough by In the Dust of This Planet that I plan to go ahead and read the next two books in Thacker’s trilogy: Starry Speculative Corpse and Tentacles Longer Than Night. The titles alone make them impossible to resist!

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27 thoughts on “In the Dust of This Planet

  1. Interesting. “This “hideous” and horrific truth makes present to us the idea that our own human world exists alongside another sort of world, indifferent and closed off to us, implying that we are not the center of the universe.”

    What do you yourself think about this?

    • I think what Thacker is making reference to is very much like – if not identical to – what Kant has referred to as the “noumenal” world: the “thing-in-itself.” This is the non-human world that would continue to exist in our absence. In Kant, it is the noumenal world that spurs human consciousness to generate a phenomenal reality: the reality of subjective, lived experience.

      While Kant did not think that there was anything especially “horrific” about the existence of a noumenal realm, Thacker does; and in this he is very much in line with those Kantian critics who charged Kant with nihilism. According to this tradition, the realization that humans are cut off from objective reality (because of the operations of the mind) degrades the notion of Truth by subjectifying it.

      I’m intrigued by Thacker’s idea that the experience of horror is related to nihilism. I just wish his book offered a more systematic account of this relationship.

  2. ” what Kant has referred to as the “noumenal” world: the “thing-in-itself.” This is the non-human world that would continue to exist in our absence.”

    If all humans die today, will elephants, tigers and bacteria still exist? What do you (not Thacker) think?

    • I’m not sure that I understand your question. Are you asking if things like non-human creatures are part of the noumenal world?

      Perhaps you are wondering if in the absence of humans whether the *concepts* of elephants, tigers and bacteria would exist? If this is what you are wondering, then no. Such concepts would be dependent on the existence of human minds.

      If you are wondering if objective, physical entities corresponding to what we call elephants, tigers and bacteria would exist, then that is a much more complicated issue.

      In Kantian philosophy, *something* exists independent of human minds, but what it is that exists cannot be known apart from the concepts of our understanding. So, if all humans died today, then *something* would remain, but what it is that remained would be unknown.

  3. O.K. Sorry that I was not clear in my question, I will put the question in a different way:-

    Do you yourself (not Kant) think that the chair you think you are sitting on right now, actually exists independently of you out “there” or is it only in you and nowhere else?

    • Yes, I personally do believe there is something (independent of me) that corresponds to the chair I am sitting in. Although I also think that there is nothing absolutely certain about this belief.

      How about you? Do you believe in the existence of a world that exists independent of human thought?

  4. Thank you for your patience in answering my questions. I appreciate it.

    Seems to me that certainly there is reality independent of all human thought (something like noumenon).

    But I do not think that chairs, tables, Sun or galaxies etc. exist independently of subject. All these things are in the subject or perceiver only and do not exist anywhere else.

    continued—–

  5. continued:

    So, if you are standing with a friend and looking and you see a lake and the friend also sees the lake. then I am saying that there is no lake outside of you and the friend. The lake which is in you is very similar to the lake which is in the friend but these two lakes are distinct, they are not the same. So your lake is not your friend’s lake. What is existing is noumenon which is prompting all the perceptions.

    So, there are not two realities as Thacker seems to think, but only one reality that is noumenon. The so called phenomenal reality is no reality at all but merely appearances in the subject.

    Your criticism is welcome.

    • Very interesting thought! So, it sounds like your way of putting things reduces the phenomenal/noumenal dualism to a kind of monism. Since noumenal reality is the single overarching, objective reality , it encompasses all of the phenomenal experiences contained within it.

      But if phenomenal reality is the actual *experience* of noumenal reality, then it (phenomenal reality) can only be known from within experience. And if it can only be known from within experience, then it cannot be *known* as noumenon but only as phenomenon. And then aren’t we back to the old dualism of that which can be known and that which exists beyond our knowing?

      In other words, don’t we run into a paradox, something like: phenomena are a part of noumena, but we can’t know phenomena as a part of noumena?

  6. I am not understanding clearly what you have written here. But I will attempt to clarify a point . Thanks for your patience.

    You wrote, ” But if phenomenal reality is the actual *experience* of noumenal reality, — “.

    When a subject perceives or experiences noumenon, he does not experience what is actually there but only that part or aspect of noumenon which his cognitive faculties can grasp.

    A thought experiment: There is a white paper on which no. 7423 is written. 7 is written in blue, 4 in yellow, 2 in red and 3 in green. Now imagine a subject who can only see what is written in red. So this subject when asked to tell what no. is written on the paper, will reply 2. Now if we consider no.7423 as what is really there (noumenon), and no. 2 as what is perceived or experienced by this subject (phenomenon), then would you say that the subject is having the actual experience of noumenon? Is cognizing 7423 as 2 an actual *experience* of 7423?

    “Phenomenal reality” is a misleading word for the false understanding of the subject, and this false understanding is part of the subject and is in the subject and can not be another separate reality outside of the subject . Your understanding is part of you and is not outside of you.
    So all what we are perceiving or experiencing is a distorted, false and misleading representation of noumenon presented to us by our limited faculties of cognition.

    Your thoughts?

    • Very good example, and I agree with all that you’ve written here.

      My understanding of your original point, however, was that you were suggesting that phenomenal experiences are part of a larger, singular noumenal reality. Perhaps I misunderstood, but I took you to be saying that if we think of noumenal reality as the one True, objective reality, then all phenomenal experiences (which occur within conscious subjects who themselves objectively exist as part of the noumenal world) must also be a part of that reality.

      Let me piggyback on your example: Let’s say that there is a reality in which I encounter the numbers 7423. Noumena here might be thought of as consisting of my objective existence, including all of the distortions occurring in my mind, along with the objective existence of the numbers. In my mind, there is a subjective process of distortion of the numbers – but this subjective process is one that also objectively exists, doesn’t it?

      Do we want to call this objectively existent process of perception part of the noumenal world? Or do we want to say that there are two distinct and completely separate worlds, one of which exists objectively and one that has no objective reality whatsoever?

  7. “Very good example, and I agree with all that you’ve written here. ”

    Thank you.

    “. Perhaps I misunderstood, but I took you to be saying that if we think of noumenal reality as the one True, objective reality, then all phenomenal experiences (which occur within conscious subjects who themselves objectively exist as part of the noumenal world) must also be a part of that reality.”

    I did not mean this and seems that I was not clear and that there was a miscommunication. This point was not in my mind even.

    But may be I am missing something and perhaps we can try to clarify this point starting from the beginning. Please write down how you are reasoning about this starting from:
    1. What is your meaning of noumenon?
    2. What is your meaning of phenomena?
    3. What is the relation between the two?

    I am saying this because we may be meaning different things by these words. For instance I would not replace the word noumenon with noumenal world or objective world or the real world or the true world etc. I would not even replace the word noumenon with the word noumena.
    You may have a point which I have not considered before. So, I will like to understand it. Thank you.

    • Noumenon I take to be the “thing-in-itself.” It is the world as it exists independent of interpretation. I think of it as the objective world, beyond experience.

      Phenomena are appearances as they become manifest to our minds. All that we can experience occurs in the realm of phenomena.

      Phenomena come to being by way of sensations – originating from the noumenal world – that are filtered and organized by the a priori intuitions of time, space and the Categories of Understanding.

      This is my understanding of these terms, although I recently have been corresponding with another person who is getting me to rethink some of this. But let’s see what you think!

      • I think that honest exploration in to any question is conducive to good philosophy and that truth springs from argument among friends. The aim of my questions is not to win the argument or to make you believe what I believe but to provoke thinking. If somebody questions me, I do not take it as an act of hostility but a way to improve my thinking.

        “Noumenon I take to be the “thing-in-itself.”

        What is the difference between a “thing” and a “thing-in-itself” ? or
        a “chair” and a “chair-in-itself” ? What you are sitting on now, is it a chair or a chair-in-itself?

      • I agree. True philosophy can only take place through honest discussion, openness and a willingness to go where the arguments take you.

        But I’m afraid we’re back where we started. If the thing-in-itself is the world that exists independent of human perception, then what you are referring to as “the chair-in-itself” would be an unperceived, uncategorized reality that exists independent of the human mind, but which also spurs the human mind to conceptualize what we call a “chair.”

        You write that you do not equate noumenon with noumena, things-in-themselves, or the objective world. Perhaps it would help to advance the argument if you articulated what you take to be the differences between these terms?

  8. I would not substitute “thing-in-itself” for noumenon.

    You said that you take noumenon to be the “thing-in-itself”.

    I asked you “What is the difference between a “thing” and a “thing-in-itself” ? or
    a “chair” and a “chair-in-itself” ? What you are sitting on now, is it a chair or a chair-in-itself?”

    Now I will try to clarify the point in a different way. I will ask you that is there something which you call chair-in-itself and are you sitting on it now 0r not ?

    • I don’t call it the “chair-in-itself,” but, yes, there is (I think) something that exists outside of my own mind that my mind categorizes as a chair. I call it a chair.

      What is your definition of noumenon?

  9. Sorry to be replying so late.

    You said, “I would use the term “chair-in-itself” as a place holder for something that I think must exist, but which I can say nothing more about.”

    I agree with this if you replace “chair-in-itself” with “noumenon”. See, my trouble with thing-in-itself or chair-in-itself or front-left-leg-of-chair-in-itself or any given atom-in-chair-in-itself is:-

    ( I will state my objections one by one ):

    First:- I do not think that there are things existing at all. So, to talk about thing-in-itself has no sense. There are no public objects or things. Things are only in the perceiver’s mind and each perceiver has his own things which are not identical with things in any other mind.

    What do you think?

    • Yes, that makes sense. I think we are using the term “in-itself” in the same way. If you believe that objects exist only in the mind, then that would mean that there are no objects “in-themselves.”

    • I think that’s a very good way of describing the meaning of noumenon.

      It, of course, opens up the question of the nature of that which our perceptions are perceptions of. It sounds like your position is that our perceptions are perceptions of ideas? If that is the case, then the noumenon would be an idea or ideas?

  10. ” It sounds like your position is that our perceptions are perceptions of ideas?”
    No, I was not thinking that.

    I do not know what is the nature of noumenon, all I can say is that noumenon need not be like our perceptions of noumenon. I can not even imagine or conceive of any way in which anyone could know the nature of noumenon.
    Can you?

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