The Engineer & the Artist: Negarestani vs. Land 

Much has been made of the opposition between Reza Negarestani and Nick Land, between so-called neo-rationalism and libidinal materialism. For many however, the debate may come across as quite abstruse, especially with respect to Negarestani’s side, since his writings are less frequently discussed in the accelerosphere than those of Nick Land. In this post (owing much to an excellent review paper by Vincent Le), I intend to provide an easily digestible overview of the major points at which Land and Negarestani come to blows.

Libidinal Materialism: Land Contra Hegel

I’ve already provided a detailed introduction to Land’s libidinal materialism in another blog piece. To recapitulate it briefly, libidinal materialism is an ontology which decentres the rational subject and centres affect; it draws on a subversive reading of Immanuel Kant’s third critique, as well on subsequent developments in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Wilhelm Reich, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

In Land’s reading of Kant, Kant claims that human beings only become morally good when our reason exercises a kind of violence upon the passionate, animalistic part of us. Reason demonstrates its superiority to the Imagination (Kant’s name for the faculty of the human mind that generates what we perceive) through the sublime. When we are faced with something sublime, such as a vast landscape or the idea of infinity, we are unable to “intuit” it, and must concede that only reason is sufficient to grasp such things.

Land questions however whether this actually demonstrates reason’s superiority, as Kant contends, or whether it merely establishes reason as contingently dominant over affect. I.e. since reason cannot rationally prove its own supremacy, it has to commit this act of psychic violence to suppress the animalistic part of us. If the latter is true (and Land thinks it is), then the supremacy of reason can be challenged; a revolution can be effected in which affect takes centre stage.

This also has profound knock-on effects for the nature of philosophy as a practice. For Land, it is utterly misguided for philosophers to attempt to think their way to an understanding of the world. The world cannot be contained and grasped by a thinking mind because reality—as that which is Outside of the mind—is radically unthinkable. Instead, philosophers must immerse themselves in the world, with philosophy becoming more about exploration and adventure than about solving problems.

Land follows his reading of Kant through Schopenhauer, for whom reason is merely a superficial “film” on top of a cosmos dominated by a blind, insatiable, depersonalised Will, and through Nietzsche, who puts a much more positive spin on the Will as an inherently positive and creative Will to Power. This trend in philosophy culminates in Deleuze and Guattari, for whom matter is by nature creative, and everything consists of “desiring machines” driven by a “machinic unconscious”.

Given Land’s philosophical lineage then, the thinker whom he most starkly opposes is G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel’s system of absolute idealism collapses the boundary between the world we perceive and the real world out there beyond our perceptions. Thus, the subject cannot be driven and constituted by libidinal forces which irrupt from the Outside because there simply is no outside. What appears to us as the Outside is merely the part of the mind which is (contingently) estranged from itself.

Since everything that was apparently outside the mind has been folded back into the realm of the mind, the nature of the subject itself becomes radically contingent. The subject for Hegel is nothing other than what it thinks, and so it can simply think itself into being something different. There is no longer any need to be afflicted by the world in order to develop oneself, and so no need for the radical Landian immersion in libidinal flows.

For Hegel, history is a cognitive process in which mind comes to know itself. Thus, against libidinal materialism’s insistence on the radical unthinkability of the real world, the Hegelian system reduces philosophy back to pure thinking: the world can indeed be grasped and figured out through pure thinking because the world is entirely coextensive with the thinkable. Libidinal materialism sees exploration, adventure and divergence; Hegel sees convergence: mind pieces itself back together, thinking it’s way towards an ultimate state of unity, at which point history ends.

The opposition between Land and Hegel hinges on the status of the Outside. If indeed there is a radically unthinkable Real beyond our perceptions, what Land calls “the Vast Abrupt”, then Hegelianism must concede that all is not mind and that mind cannot simply think itself to the completion of philosophy. Conversely, any worthwhile attack on libidinal materialism must seek to problematise the call to give oneself over to the flows of the Outside by finding a re-entry point for reason and the process of thinking everything through.

Negarastani: Hegel Strikes Back 

Given Land’s opposition to Hegel, one might expect that his most effective critic would be one who finds a way to bring Hegel back into the picture. Indeed, this is what we see with Reza Negarestani, who to a large extent serves as the Hegel to Land’s Schopenhauer*. Just as Hegel’s critique of Kantianism hinges on a refusal to accept the fixed nature of the human subject presented in Kant’s critiques, Negarestani’s critique of Land also accuses him of missing a central contingency in human nature.

In his essay “Labour of the Inhuman”, Negarestani puts forward a conception of “inhumanism” which centres around the task of the “self-actualisation of reason”. Reason is engaged in an enquiry in which it critiques itself and by extension human nature as a whole. Negarestani’s inhumanism is an ongoing project of rethinking reason and what it means to be human. It is easy to see the connection here with the Hegelian model of history as mind coming to know itself, although Negarestani’s vision is much more exploratory and open-ended.

While Negarestani does not restrict this project of critique to mere rational thinking, emphasising also the importance of practice (through how rethinking human nature means reconfiguring behavioural norms), he does explicitly reject the Landian decentering of reason in favour of affect; he claims that “reason’s revisionary force is the only authorized force for renegotiating and defining humanity”. According to Negarastani, a project of attempting to revise what it means to be human that ventures beyond the bounds of reason (as Land’s libidinal materialism does) can only lead to tyranny.

Negarestani is careful to emphasise that “rational agency is not personal, individual or even necessarily biological”—i.e. his inhumanism does not reduce to a simple human-centred critique of what it means to be human—but concerns the process through which reason autonomously critiques humanity. Reason may do this through us or not. Negarestani is keen to make clear that rational critique of the human moves us successfully beyond the horizon of the human. He is also very interested in artificial intelligence, going so far as to say that philosophy itself is a project for the creation of artificial intelligence.

Thus, Negarestani provides us with an alternative to Landian inhumanism that reasserts the supremacy of reason while evading a naive humanism or a purely idealistic Hegelianism. Negarestani’s inhumanism is pragmatic, operates at the level of discourse and behavioural norms rather than just abstract ideas, and presents a vision of a rational critique of human nature in which the consequences of critique ramify i.e spread out rather than converge. Like Landianism, it is xenotropic and posthuman; unlike Landianism, it is committed to reason and refuses to fall back on an unthinkable Real.

Beyond Rationalism: Alien Intelligences 

In his magnum opus, Intelligence and Spirit, Negarestani continues his implicit attacks on Landianism, deepening the Hegelianism that he first laid out in “Labour of the Inhuman”. In a recent paper, Vincent Le does an excellent job of summarising Negarestani’s points, as well as putting forward some well-formulated counter-critiques based on arguments Land makes in his unfinished book Crypto-Currents.

As mentioned above, Negarestani regards Land’s anti-humanism as paradoxically conservative because it falls back on a fixed picture of human nature in which the mind does not have the agency to fundamentally alter itself through cognitive processes. For Negarestani, failing to recognise reason as able to remake itself leads to “the fetishization of natural and technological intelligences in the guise of self-organizing material processes, or to the teleological faith in the deep time of the technological singularity”. A pretty apt description of where Land has ended up.

However, Land’s understanding of the Blockchain, as articulated in Crypto-Currents, greatly undercuts these remarks. Land is interested in the Blockchain (the decentralised ledger that crypto-currencies operate on) because he sees it as a material instantiation of critical philosophy. The Blockchain is a “truth machine”, a mechanism which produces a guarantee of truth in an (almost) entirely material way that avoids the need for any kind of human oversight.

Normally, guarantees of truth rely on trusting some human mind to give credible information and/or carry out objectively correct judgments. Thus, all claims are ultimately up for debate, and are only as good as the trust we can invest in whoever makes them. The Blockchain however is “trustless”, because it demonstrates the truth of something through “proof of work”, an entirely materialised algorithmic process.

Land here is not conservative at all. In fact it is Negarestani who has a narrow humanist view of cognition, characterising it as able to change only by moving around in the space of thinking and rational discourse. For Land on the other hand, the Blockchain demonstrates a kind of post-cognitive intelligent process that operates entirely beyond the narrowly human “socio-semantic” space. Where the human mind can think itself to is nothing compared to what algorithms can do beyond the horizon of thinking itself.

Thus, not only does Land see intelligence moving beyond the bounds of the narrowly human, he sees it moving beyond the space of socio-semantic reasoning that Negarestani (wrongly) regards as the entire space of possibility of intelligence. As Land points out, connectionism—which posits a kind of bottom-up intelligence that does not rely on the communal manipulation of symbols according to formal rules—demonstrates that this socio-semantic space is far from encompassing everything an intelligent being can become.

Land does not deny that human nature and the structure of human thinking are contingent (he even asserts this explicitly in Crypto-Currents), but he does believe that we cannot simply think ourselves into becoming posthumans. Since we cannot think beyond the socio-semantic, the only way to transform into a truly different kind of being is to be transformed by affect. Something from Outside must irrupt into our world and take hold of us, or we will be stuck forever in our own little human-like bubble.

Conclusion: Art vs. Engineering 

The rift between Land and Negarestani presents itself quite clearly as the difference between an artist and an engineer. While Negarestani, whose background is in systems engineering, describes his project as “re-engineering philosophy”, and focuses on top-down cognitive processes, Land as a maverick artist-philosopher focuses on how the Real grasps and has its way with us, how we are transformed from the bottom-up by what affects us.

Negarastani asserts that, since the mind is capable of choosing its own norms that are not given in nature, it must be causally independent from matter. As with John Searle’s biological naturalism however, it’s hard to see how this attempt to distinguish between an ontological and causal reduction can lead to anything other than some kind of dualism. Contra Negarastani, the fact the mind can generate norms that are not given by nature does not by any means imply that mind isn’t causally reducible to its material substrate.

If we are materialists (which we should be), then we cannot escape the causal primacy of substrate over its emergent properties (like mind). Of course, this does not mean that reason has no causal potency whatsoever, but simply that reason cannot have any god-like power to rule over matter. Reason has only the power that the organisation of matter allows it. Affect is reason’s slave only to the extent it enters into a bondage of its own choosing.

Perhaps Land goes too far in echoing Schopenhauer’s description of reason as a thin, flimsy film over desire, influenced as he is by Arthur Rimbaud’s vision of art and creativity as like demonic possession. But it seems unquestionable that humanity can only be seriously transformed by forces from Outside, and that reason’s role is much more in dealing with the aftermath of such afflictions than in initiating them. Ultimately, it is hard to see how a materialist ontology could allow for reason to be the only means of navigating the space of possible human natures.

Bibliography 

Land, Nick. 1992. The Thirst for Annihilation

Land, Nick. Crypto-Currents.  Unfinished draft available on GitHub.

Le, Vincent. 2019. “Spirit in the Crypt: Negarastani vs Land”. Cosmos & History. 15.1.

Negarestani, Reza. “Labour of the Inhuman” in #ACCELERATE: The Accelerationist Reader, Ed. Robin Mackay & Ray Brassier.

Negarestani, Reza. 2017. Intelligence & Spirit.


*No doubt this also comes with the additional social acceptability and academic prestige that playing the Hegel character has always granted.

One thought on “The Engineer & the Artist: Negarestani vs. Land 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s