“COSMIC PESSIMISM” IS A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS: on some isolated quotes from Eugene Thacker

This may well be the worst of all possible reviews of Eugene Thacker’s forthcoming book COSMIC PESSIMISM. I have no access to the book, and I am basing my comments on a review by someone who apparently has read the book, and who gives us a couple of quotes and some commentary. So I could be wildly mistaken. This post is offered in the spirit of provoking discussion.

Here are the quotes:

“Pessimism’s two major keys are moral and metaphysical pessimism, its subjective and objective poles, an attitude towards the world and a claim about the world. For moral pessimism, it is better not to have been born at all; for metaphysical pessimism, this is the worst of all possible worlds.”

and

Cioran once wrote, ‘I turned away from philosophy when it became impossible to discover in Kant any human weakness, any authentic accent of melancholy, in Kant and in all the philosophers.’ I keep returning to Kant, but for the opposite reason. Each time I read, and witness the scintillating and austere construction of a system, I cannot help but to feel a certain sadness—the edifice itself is somehow depressing.

Thacker talks about “all possible worlds, a pluralist notion, but his pessimism is monist: “Pessimism’s two major keys are moral and metaphysical pessimism, its subjective and objective poles, an attitude towards the world and a claim about the world. For moral pessimism, it is better not to have been born at all; for metaphysical pessimism, this is the worst of all possible worlds.” How many other possible worlds has Thacker visited? If he is conveying not an “attitude about the world” but a “claim about the world”, where is his evidence. It is very “cosmic” to claim, inverting Leibniz, that our world is the worst of all possible worlds, but Thacker’s counterpart in each of the other possible worlds is probably saying the same thing. Does Thacker want to one-up himself (his possible selves, some of whom no doubt disagree) and claim that “they’re all the worst”?

To Thacker’s “metaphysical”, i.e. monist, pessimism (“this is the worst of all possible worlds”. “this”? What “this”?) I prefer Alain Badiou’s pluralism: “Man is the animal to whom it belongs to participate in numerous worlds” (LOGICS OF WORLDS, 513).

“This is the worst of all possible worlds”. This view is quite surprising coming from someone who has read and appreciated François Laruelle. The statement belongs to the worst sort of philosophical sufficiency. “Cosmic pessimism” my foot! To use Laruelle’s ideas, this is pre-quantum, a moralistic inversion. For Badiou there are a “discontinuous variety of worlds”, but Thacker proposes unity, continuity, homogeneity. This is the “lucid” underside of democratic materialism, described as “a-tonal” by Badiou. Thacker’s cosmos is not a-tonal, but mono-tonal, pessimism as subjectivation of a-tonality.

On Emil Cioran, a pessimist who white-washed his “dark” past, Thacker comments: “Cioran once wrote, ‘I turned away from philosophy when it became impossible to discover in Kant any human weakness, any authentic accent of melancholy, in Kant and in all the philosophers.’ I keep returning to Kant, but for the opposite reason”. This is an interesting quote. We know that Cioran was at first very enthusiastic for Hitler, a “Hitlerist” as he once called himself, and then “turned away”. Seemingly for the opposite reason than for turning away from Kant and from philosophy: he turned away from Hitler because of Hitler’s “human weakness” (he lost).

To return to Laruelle and the quantum: as in the case of Badiou, Laruelle elaborates a non-pessimistic philosophy. Laruelle tells us that the aim of his quantum turn was to get us out of “the circles of hell”, so there is no room for pessimism. Quantum uncertainty is the other face of the pluriverse. There is no sense of the pluriverse in Thacker’s statements (as quoted here), nor even any sense of  contingency (hyperchaos!). With that attitude any world you are in would be the “worst possible of all worlds”. Thus I can see no distinction between the two senses (moral, metaphysical) of pessimism that Thacker distinguishes.

In conclusion, pessimism is monism but the cosmos is a pluriverse. Thacker’s pessimism shows no sense of of the cosmos. Nor does Thacker formulate his pessimism as a “claim”, except in the self-contadictory form of the title “cosmic pessimism” (i.e. pluralist monism), or of the self-contradictory formula “this is the worst of all possible worlds”. There is no “this”, there is no “worst”, and many worlds are actual. Mono-tonalism is merely the subjectified validation of a-tonalism. As such it is a doctrine of passivity and anesthesia.

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