Ben Woodard - Dark vitalism:a mix of weird fiction and sci-fi with speculative philosophy and biology to diagnose and explicate the metaphysical and literal sliminess of human existence
Ben Woodard, Slime Dynamics, Zero Books, 2012.
"Despite humanity s gradual ascent from clustered pools of it, slime is more often than not relegated
to a mere residue—the trail of a verminous life form, the trace of decomposition, or an entertaining
synthetic material—thereby leaving its generative and mutative associations with life neatly removed
from the human sphere of thought and existence. Arguing that slime is a viable physical and metaphysical
object necessary to produce a realist bio-philosophy void of anthrocentricity, this text explores
naturephilosophie, speculative realism, and contemporary science; hyperbolic representations of slime
found in the weird texts of HP Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti; as well as survival horror films, video
games, and graphic novels, in order to present the dynamics of slime not only as the trace of life
but as the darkly vitalistic substance of life."
"Woodard reminds us that humans "like any other polyp of living matter, are nothing but heaps of slime slapped together and shaped by the accidents of time and the context of space. The fact that we have evolved self-consciousness should not guarantee or maintain meaning.Meaning is only ever the final gloss on being which when removed does not then dictate mass suicide nor pure apathy (Woodard. 66). 3
Woodard's excellent meditation on the dark vitality at the heart of life can be read in an afternoon. The format is a series of essays that expand in waves upon the central theme of the patient work of the negative, not the negative that negates life, but the patient negation that eliminates meaning from the very fabric of space and time revealing the pathology of existence: "... subtracting meaning, reducing ontological life to biological life is only to unbind pathology which seems like a far more useful weapon in combating a structure than meaning..."(66). He explains this saying,
"Pathology opens the oddness of any creation in time and space thereby spreading a plague of tenuousness across all of existence. ... Everything Dies. This introduces the tension between inactivity between inaction and action, that things will perish but so will I. The strange temporality is reflected in the symptom, in that particular things in time form our particular pathological trajectory but this trajectory continuously reminds us of its existence (66-67)."
Reza Negarestani in his essay Death as a Perversion: Openess and Germinal Death (here) tells us the "desire for openness has been considered the desire for life, death, horror, outside and intensity and this is why it has been cautiously appropriated whether through desire itself or despotic rigidities. However, it has been never totally blocked, for even in the case of monolithic despotism and rigidity, we do not encounter closure but strictly economical openness which is the indispensable part of any paranoiacally isolationist organization." This type of openess Negarestani terms affordance and tells us that through "affordance, openness is represented as the level of being open (to) not being opened (the plane of epidemic and contagion: plagues, contaminations, possession, etc.)." In a declarative statement he continues:
""I am open to you." means, I have the capacity to bear your investment or 'I afford you' (this is not an intentional conservative voice but what arises as the fundamental noise produced by the machinery of different levels of organization and boundary, and finally organic survival); if you exceed this capacity I will be cracked, lacerated and laid open. "
Woodard tells us that this kind of openess is a form of "being splayed open" that recognizes pathology but does not legitimate structure (67). He tells us that we must remain open to the pathological and to life itself so that the power of the Cthuloid ethics reveals the fissures and cracks of our lacerated pathologies (67). Ultimately Woodard's meditation lays bare the emptiness within and without, a darkness that is a blinding nihil that affords a "metaphysical construct opposed to emergence and that is at once a simultaneous resurrection and mutilation of vitalism (8)."
The term "emergent" was coined by the pioneer psychologist G. H. Lewes, who wrote:
"Every resultant is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same -- their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogeneous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference." 4
Woodard tells us that vitalism is traditionally not unlike emergentism in that both suggest there is something more to life, something that drives and/or affects life that is not purely reducible to the classifiable componenets of life itself (8). Against this signification of vitalism as emergentism as that which harbors the meaning of life or vital substance that "propels life forward", he offers instead the theory that the "vital force is time and its effect on space" that propels all things forward (8). In his readings of Deleuze, Guattari, Bergson and Merleau-Ponty he comes to the realization that vitalism cannot be a thing, that it cannot be a force "because it says nothing about life itself as a force, only that it develops but not how(9)." What all the philosophers of vitalism have left out is a dark truth Woodard tells us, one that shows forth the force of time itself: "... time as something beyond thought which is the force of vitalism (life emerges over time) and the substance of vitalism is not the germ plasm trumping heredity but space as it is filled by life (9)."
He goes on to ask a central question: How do we bring vitalism "into contact with reality and raise it from its spatio-temporal philosophical obscurity?(10)"
The articulation of vitalism that he presents is what he terms a "minimalist metaphysics which operates on reality by way of following an ontological cascade mirroring the cosmological progression of forces and matters.(10)" He takes an almost Spinzoist turn (rooted in the Neo-Platonic One) telling us that this "force of forces" arises out of the original One, a "One not as a pure unification but the possibility of 'isness' itself stemming from the original simultaneous explosion of time and space as well as the resulting emanations, immanences, emergences and transcendences(10)." He argues that "vitalism is a mental shadow of the progression of the universe from the speculative moment before the Big Bang, as a highly condensed mass, to its extension into time and space and matter, to biological life, and finally to reflective thinking(10-11)." He sees this as a "degenerate take on vitalism and the Neo-Platonic One" and together they form his unique theory of dark vitalism.
This dark vitalism led Woodard to the "sickening realization" that the universe is oblivious to human existence, that this inhospitable universe is shaped by the force of time and that all things within it are accidents of the contortions of a universal geometry of space that shapes all things, including us, which are "further ravaged by accident, context, feedback, and the degradation of wear and age (11)." The universal geometry of this dark vitalism is formed by the three-fold darkness of its central unfolding: first, it is dark because it is obscured by both nature ... and by time ... since the cause of the most of the nature we know has fallen back into the deep past. Second, it is dark because it spells bad news for the human race in terms of our origin, our meaning, and our ultimate fate. And, finally, it is dark on an aesthetic and experiential level our psychological and phenomenological existence is darkened and less friendly to us, and to our perceptions, given the destructiveness of time and space (11-12).
In a series of resonating essays that open out toward each other in a triple movment and doubling remediation of nihilistic light, revealing wave after wave of intrepid disclosure, Woodard offers us a deeply personal and moving vision of our material life as slime. As he states it so eloquently, slime "is the smudge of reality, the remainder and reminder of the fact that things fall apart. The shining path of humanity is only ever the verminous-like trail of our own oozing across time and space - the trace and proof of our complete sliminess through and through. Human existence then is composed of the slime of being conjoined with the mindless and dysfunctional repetitions of pathology (67-68)."
In the end this is a dark vitalism that accepts the deep realms of forces and processes but does not try to think it under the sign of reason alone, instead it envisions a "strange combination of realism and vitalism" that is both speculative and material, and tells us that "time is the ground of all ideation, and human beings are merely thinking slime(60)". It accepts that life is an accident, a mistake, a "foul thing" - that it is the vision of a cosmic nihilism that will "fill space till the cosmos burns too low for anything to again cohere, ending only with an ocean of putrescence spilling over into the boundless void of extinction (68)." Ultimately he tells us that his text is less about slime itself than about the sliminess of life, of the inevitable biological and physical constraints on living in the world that, in one way or another, is always a being-toward-extinction(13). ...more - Dark Chemistry
"Ben Woodard’s SLIME DYNAMICS, recently released by Zero Books, offers a continuing exploration of subjects and modes of thinking developed over the last few years within the realm of philosophy that has donned the title of “speculative realism.” Woodard concerns himself primarily, both in this book and in his academic engagements, with the ideas of Dark Vitalism, which, as the book posits is
…the sickening realization of an inhospitable universe, stating that the production of life as an accidental event in time which is then contorted and bent by the banality of space, of our particular (and just as accidental) universal geometry and then further ravaged by accident, context, feedback and the degradation of wear and age.
Taking Dark Vitalism as its launching point Woodard continues to trace the idea of slime as “a viable physical and metaphysical object necessary to produce a eralist bio-philosophy void of anthrocentricity.” A turn away from anthromorphism, away from humanism perhaps, is another trade mark of developing thought, as it recenters the organicism of the world, the infinitude (outside of the phenomenological existence of human-beings–aka what came before Beings, what can come after, what this means). These continuing strands are carried throughout the short study in true continental style, vis a vis literary horror fiction, horror movies, video games and comics. This presents a fun context, at least for someone as genre obsessed as I am, to explore larger concepts.
While ultimately not utterly convincing in its case-studies, Woodard’s book does prove to be a fully engaging read and an interesting footnote on the development of speculative realism, specifically that of dark vitalism and the uncanny terror of the world carrying on without us." - Impossible Mike
For too long, the Earth has been used to ground thought instead of bending it; such grounding leaves the planet as nothing but a stage for phenomenology, deconstruction, or other forms of anthropocentric philosophy. In far too much continental philosophy, the Earth is a cold, dead place enlivened only by human thought—either as a thing to be exploited, or as an object of nostalgia. Geophilosophy seeks instead to question the ground of thinking itself, the relation of the inorganic to the capacities and limits of thought. This book constructs an eclectic variant of geophilosophy through engagements with digging machines, nuclear waste, cyclones and volcanoes, giant worms, secret vessels, decay, subterranean cities, hell, demon souls, black suns, and xenoarcheaology, via continental theory (Nietzsche, Schelling, Deleuze, et alia) and various cultural objects such as horror films, videogames, and weird Lovecraftian fictions, with special attention to Speculative Realism and the work of Reza Negarestani. In a time where the earth as a whole is threatened by ecological collapse, On an Ungrounded Earth generates a perversely realist account of the earth as a dynamic engine materially invading and upsetting our attempts to reduce it to merely the ground beneath our feet.
Ben Woodard's blog