Since the rise of the hard sciences, particularly the cognitive sciences, the task of philosophy has become quite vague. What is the role of a philosopher when the image of the human is stripped, bit by bit, via the encroachments of the material sciences? That the image is stripped is not to say, as is commonly said, that the mold of the human is left as a void, for there can be no real voids for a negation is, in truth, a displacement, which are always themselves replacements, as one image supplants the other, which are further, always only partial replacements, for they are moored to the indelible biological attributions of sensing and perceiving, thinking and knowing which allow for the study of self and species to take place. Conceptualization abhors a vacuum. Yet, the precise shape of this image has yet to be forged, has yet, even, still to congeal. The posthuman is a far off shape upon the moor of potentiality, clearly present, yet, obscured as if by a mist.
This space between the observer and that which the mist obscures we shall call, for brevity, the lacunae of man — the point at which intuitive self-conception begins to break down as the precise functionality of the machine-animal is excavated from nature’s hidden depths.
In response to the supervenience of the sciences and the emergence of the lacunae, philosophy has recoiled; jealously guarding the perception of some special, unidentifiable essence of the folkish image, some sacrality to the sapient animal, terrified of the incursions of nihilism, fatalism, scientism and the gradual disenchantment of the verse; blithely advancing the notion that man is irreducible and that, no matter how well-mapped the soma, there will always be some effervescent, ethereal residue left over, which only the philosopher, and perhaps the artist as well, will maintain access to. Cognitive irredentism. This folklore of man — a cartographic space accumulated throughout the generations, which informs the relation of one to self and thus, one to another, but which is conceived of as intrinsic — was what the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars described as the Manifest Image (how the laptop looks to me as I write upon it and that ‘I’ — the Me in the head — am writing) which stands in contradistinction to the Scientific Image (the physical composition of the laptop in terms of its constitutive parts, from elementary particles to the macro-scale materials and interactions they form and produce and that the ‘I’ is a real ‘I’ but is constituted not by a special essentialism beyond biology, but by electro-chemical interactions within the soma, or, to put it another way, how the laptop looks to a robot via machine vision — the development of AI may well herald something like a Machinic Image wherein robots develop self-conceptions and ontologies to better navigate the world and relate to each other; but that is a discussion for another time and place).
Some have hoped for a syncretization of the two images, fearing that if such a project is not undertaken the Manifest Image is in jeopardy of total destruction, unleashing a multitudinous cascade of consequences, the full effects of which being too wide-ranging to fathom. Whilst this is a bad way of framing the problem, given that the manifest image was required and remains central to the project of the scientific image (as the scientific project exists not to learn something “for its own sake” as there must always be a experiential epicenter for the postulates of science) there is much to say about the ways in which a more demonstrable methodology has undermined and destroyed traditional conceptions of the world and with the destruction of those ontologies and epistemologies there has followed a destruction of particular ways of being in the world (for instance, in understanding chemical properties, chemistry displaced alchemy as the dominant discourse and thus voided the profession and lifestyle of the alchemist). However, issues pertaining to traditional or ancient philosophies do not deal with the lacunae of man — which itself entails numerous existential quandaries.
How to construct a society when a small portion of the population, privvy to the latest technological advancements, is able to live for 200+ years? How to relate to those whom have undergone such extensive cybernetic transformations as to render them sapiently unrecognizable? What rights or restrictions, if any, should be created or taken from manufactured lifeforms or sufficiently gene-modified humans? Provided machines become self-conscious, how to integrate them into human-society if it is even possible to do so? Given that we now know the expiration date of the sun, how best to prepare our progeny so as to evade its wrathful envelopment? What are the best planets to colonize and how will society be modulated by deep-space travel? What to do in the eventuality of a breakaway civilization, how to relate to a humanity that has itself become another species entirely and is no longer capable of interbreeding?
The possibility of even asking any of these questions is a consequence of continual knowledge acquisition itself only possible due our sapience.
The Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe, in his darkly edifying text The Last Messiah, wrote:
“The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by over evolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment. In depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendour pinning its bearer to the ground.
Why, then, has mankind not long ago gone extinct during great epidemics of madness? Why do only a fairly minor number of individuals perish because they fail to endure the strain of living – because cognition gives them more than they can carry?”
Zapffe posits a answer to his own question slightly later in the text, noting that, “Most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.” His presupposition holds that because man “saw himself” as he was — as erkjennelsesmessig — and not as he believed himself to be, just another organism, “naked under cosmos, homeless in his own body,” feasting upon others and shortly to be consumed in Time’s rapacious maw, mankind was filled with a sense of “cosmic panic” brought about by his “damaging surplus of consciousness” which allowed for this horrid realization. A sentiment which mirrors the thought of the philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote, “Knowledge is the plague of life, and consciousness, an open wound in its heart.” Although it should be noted that whereas Cioran was a nihilist, Zapffe was not, indeed, in his view, it is precisely the (horrific) meaning which can be gained from man’s “surplus of consciousness” concerning the hideousness of the world which brings about the “cosmic panic” described above.
There is truth to the conclusion and yet, not the whole of it. Zapffe has hit upon a dialetheism — what Zapffe describes as the “tragic paradox of life.” The development of species attributions purposed for survival which themselves bring about the extinction of the species (the antlers of the ancient cervidae, the mind of man), which, in the register is not really so different than unlife leading to life and life ultimately trending to its dissolution. The evolutionary gauntlet fosters no bivalencies outside of survival itself. The position between horror and knowledge is not either or — that is to say, the choice is not: either we (humans) delimit our knowledge and more fully experience the horror of knowing or we limit our knowledge and stave off the horror of knowing (naked under cosmos) as the means by which those methods of successful repression are required are not intrinsic but must be created, learned and developed, which itself requires knowledge. There is no escape from the need for knowledge and thus, no escape from the horror of knowing. Or to utilize Zapffe’s lexicon, knowledge is to humanity as the antlers were to the Cervis Giganticus. Yet, it is not at all clear that, as a matter of course, our intellect will fan the flames of our own pyres, rather environmental inhospitality (from the sun, barring space migration) seems the most likely way in which the species shall pass from the earth. Knowledge (and its application) differs tremendously from a antler in its mutability and its potential for shaping eventualities (even and particularly, itself). The deer has no ability to curb the growth of its antler and even if it were to periodically break them off it would only be intensifying and prolonging its suffering and eventual demise. This, Zapffe realized, writing, “If the giant deer, at suitable intervals, had broken off the outer spears of its antlers, it might have kept going for some while longer. Yet in fever and constant pain, indeed, in betrayal of its central idea, the core of its peculiarity, for it was vocated by creation’s hand to be the horn bearer of wild animals. What it gained in continuance, it would lose in significance, in grandness of life, in other words a continuance without hope, a march not up to affirmation, but forth across its ever recreated ruins, a self-destructive race against the sacred will of blood.”
Ignoring his off-handed sacral inscriptions and references to an amorphous divinity (“creation’s hand”), there is a sense in which the human intellect may be compared to the Cervidae’s crown, but the connection is slight. There is no detectable mind-body separation and as a consequence, what occurs at the level of the mind is a function of the body, just as the antlers were a function of the ancient deer; but this connection may be extended to any organism. The lobster is a excellent example, given that death in the species, outside of predation, typically occurs through the inability to shed their shells (due metabolic insufficiency) and hence, the shell will molder and imbed itself within the flesh of the hapless creature and shortly thereafter, bring about its expiration. This is to say that every biological development has within it, the potential for organic-catastrophe but Zapffe gives no method by which the likelihood of the detrimental effects of the development of the mind might be gauge, it is, to him, an inevitability.
What Zapffe further fails to consider in his piece is that with the continual increase in knowledge and understanding of the operation of the organic-machine — the whole human body — has come a increasing ability to modulate it. Provided human collective understanding of the machine-animal continues relatively uninterrupted, it is not fanciful (in that it violates no known natural laws) to consider that at a certain threshold of development, at a particular crossroads along the way to the misty image, humankind may well be able to pick and choose which emotions they experience and when and how intensely. Of a certainty, this would entail great social and political revision, and forethought pertaining to the implementation of whatever practices and technologies are able to bring about this fundamental transformation in human cognition, as emotions exist along the evolutionary river and are not, in aggregate, at cross purposes with it. However, this mind-modulating variety of humanity would be wholly out from under the shadow of Zapffe’s antlers, wholly unperturbed by the vast quiet of the void or the impending specter of death or any earthly detriments that they did not choose to engage with. It is also theoretically possible to breed out — to a degree — those peculiarities which engender a desire for cognitive repression (which Zapffe alleges is indispensable to bearing the burden of cognizance) and in so-doing would breed out the need for coping mechanisms, or, going more to the heart of the matter, one could attempt to foster a line which is impervious to all those emotional internalities which give rise to cosmic panic. When this realization is paired with the ever-expanding knowledge of the human-genome and the proliferation of increasingly precise and affordable genomic modification tools, the prospect of any kind of existential quandary become increasingly less problematic the more these technologies are developed and adopted and applied. That being said, there are two complications which stand against this prospect, namely, the aversion to such a project from the general public which may be perceived as being too foreign or intrusive a thing to do, certainly, ever similar project has been met with cries of “hold!” from those whose sacred myths it would invariably inter. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, those changes made so as to better gird against mental trauma of knowing ourselves as we are and not as we merely perceive ourselves to be, will doubtless bring with it numerous unforeseen developments for the development of every new philosophy and technology is the generation of risk, like an iceberg, what is seen at the top is but a small portion of the total structure that would begin congealing in world wherein physiological states are increasingly modulated at will — the whole social fabric would need up-ending for its success! Even now one can see the tremendous potential in pharmacology and meditative practice, and yet, so ill-applied, as it is rarely culturally incorporated, but merely seen as a panacea for culture itself; even still, they are only patches, rather than “cures” for Zapffe’s conundrum and hence it is in forcing a passage from our present vantage point upon the moor across the lacunae of man by which the problem may be solved if, in the consideration, one should view it as a problem at all.
Given that the complete and total transformation of the animal-machine is, as yet, some ways off, humanity writ-large must turn to other means by which to psychologically steady themselves. Repression mechanisms. To ameliorate the sense of cosmic panic, humans engage in a number of different practices which Zapffe categorizes as, “isolation, anchoring, distraction and sublimation.”
By isolation he does not necessarily mean the removal of oneself from society, or some portion of it, but rather he means, “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling.”
By anchoring, he refers to those codes and practices which orient one’s life via an attachment to a particular place and the experiences thereof (the ways in which students intensely await Summer break as a point of future-experiential-orientation) which Zapffe describes as “a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness. Though typically unconscious, it may also be fully conscious (one ‘adopts a goal’.).” He further describes all cultures as a elaborate system of ‘anchorings’ which are themselves built atop firmaments (the substratum of culture, the fundamental notions and ideas of a polity; ie. the state, the good, fate, the divine, community, the people, our people, etc.) — all of which act as mitigating factors against the chaotic, liquid flow of consciousness trammeling up to the horrors of knowing via the instantiation of “sheltering values” (such as a belief in the afterlife: “Daddy’s not gone, he’s watching you from heaven”). Anchorings, Zapffe posits, are both loved and hated; they are loved for protecting us and yet hated for limiting the ambit of our actions (for instance, one may at the same time find joy in the communalism of a church, while at the same time detesting the strictures of the doctrines which formed and maintain it, one may appreciate the comfort of mind brought about by the policeman and yet detest a search of one’s vehicle, etc). In Zapffe’s view horror arises in the mind when these firmaments are broken down and done away with.
By distraction, Zapffe refers specifically to those endeavors which limit attention so as to protect a individual from the trauma of being and the “mark of death.” The common interpretation of “distraction” is “engaging in something which is trivial which pulls one away from those things most important in life” whereas in Zapffe’s deployment it is largely a function of distraction by which importance is sustained, though this is not to say that Zapffe views distraction as good or right, as shortly after his discourse on the character of distraction in his ontological context he notes that in failing it, suicide becomes more probable and that suicide is no sorry thing, indeed, to Zapffe, it is a natural death from spiritual causes and that any attempt to “save” a spiritually degraded individual from taking their life is a “barbarity” arising from a “misapprehension of the nature of existence.” This view of death stems from his apprehension of human yearning, characterized, as he puts it, not merely by a ‘striving toward’ but also by a ‘escape from’ some thing or things, internal or external and that the principal motivating factor in yearning is the escape from “-the earthly vale of tears, one’s own unendurable condition.” This, to Zapffe, is the deepest stratum of the human soul and the nexus for all religious yearning; thus, in his view, only the miserable, those who cannot face themselves as they are, can truly be religious and all their doctrines are but anchorings beyond themselves and the world as a consequence of their own, and thus, it’s, inexhaustible horror.
The fourth and final mechanism of protection is sublimation, which is distinct from the three other methods described above in that it is a process of transformation, rather than repression. Sublimation is the act of converting some painful or elsewise trepidatious experience into something else, particularly, something positive (or at least, more positive than the experience itself) which affirms life. He offers up an example of what is and is not sublimation. Sublimation is not a mountain climber working up the face of a great stony edifice, as he is tinged by vertigo and the dread of, upon putting one step false, plunging to his doom; sublimation, rather, is the mountaineer recalling his adventure and waxing triumphant after the fact. This, he concludes, is the rarest of all the four profligate defense mechanisms against faltering under the weight of being common to all mankind.
It is thus in making the fourth mechanism the most prevalent, concomitant with the proposal for total modification, that a potential pathway for mass-man lies. For what underlies the firmaments that Zapffe describes are not unchanging nor unchangeable dictates of from ‘creation’ but rather, a mixture of materiality which can be shaped to the extent that shapes can be imagined and imaginations externalized.
After the establishment of this schema Zapffe pivots to a discourse on primitivism and modern technology, writing, “Is it possible for ‘primitive natures’ to renounce these cramps and cavorts and live in harmony with themselves in the serene bliss of labour and love? Insofar as they may be considered human at all, I think the answer must be no. The strongest claim to be made about the so-called peoples of nature is that they are somewhat closer to the wonderful biological ideal than we unnatural people. And when even we have so far been able to save a majority through every storm, we have been assisted by the sides of our nature that are just modestly or moderately developed. This positive basis (as protection alone cannot create life, only hinder its faltering) must be sought in the naturally adapted deployment of the energy in the body and the biologically helpful parts of the soul, subject to such hardships as are precisely due to sensory limitations, bodily frailty, and the need to do work for life and love.”
Like most biosophists he has some sentimentality towards the Rousseauean ideal, of the primitive “natural state” of all things, an idyllic splendor of ease and balance with the world, a conception which flies in the face, not just of evolutionary understanding, but also of Zapffe’s own philosophy of cosmic dread and yet, even still, he defends a portion of the notion by asserting that primitive natures are “closer to the wonderful biological ideal” than “unnatural people” such as himself, you, the reader, or I. Here, I fear, he falls prey to his romantic predilections, so common to those possessed of a keen sense of the tragic (and recall that the text for which he is most well known was Om det tragiske — On The Tragic), for there is never not a ‘natural state,’ if so what is its character and when, precisely does it become ‘unnatural.’ No clear description can be given beyond, ‘that which remains unchanged by man,’ and as a consequence, one must realize that this fetishization of ‘the natural’ is, at its most fundamental level, a ontological notion which drives against, not just power, but all change itself. Along a sufficient timeline this ‘natural ideal’ vanishes into dust, for before the formation of the planet, or long after its consumption by the sun, what wonderful biological ideal is left? Why is it ideal to remain in one’s place of earthly origin, landlocked and mudbound? Why is it wonderful not to change the world to better suit the organism’s needs? No one raises their voices or shakes their fist overly much at the beaver and his dam nor the wasp and their nest nor the coral and their reefs so why do as much to one’s fellows? If ‘unnatural’ is that which moves furthest from Zapffe’s primordial ‘ideal,’ it is clear that, in so far as our species’ concern lies intact, our energies should be continually deployed in a dogged pursuit of the greatest ‘unnaturality’ possible.
He continues in a logical extension of his critique of the ‘unnatural’ by predictably taking aim at modern, technological civilization.
“-technology and standardisation have such a debasing influence. For as an ever growing fraction of the cognitive faculties retire from the game against the environment, there is a rising spiritual unemployment. The value of a technical advance to the whole undertaking of life must be judged by its contribution to the human opportunity for spiritual occupation. Though boundaries are blurry, perhaps the first tools for cutting might be mentioned as a case of a positive invention.
Other technical inventions enrich only the life of the inventor himself; they represent a gross and ruthless theft from humankind’s common reserve of experiences and should invoke the harshest punishment if made public against the veto of censorship. One such crime among numerous others is the use of flying machines to explore uncharted land. In a single vandalistic glob, one thus destroys lush opportunities for experience that could benefit many if each, by effort, obtained his fair share.”
Zapffe’s argument takes on here, a Heideggerian character. It isn’t entirely clear what the “game against the environment” is, if it is merely those actions of humanity which guard themselves from all externalities which could potentiate destruction and decay of the species (ie. disease, resource acquisition/scarcity, extremes in clime, predation or parasitism via other organisms), then that is a “game” which will never end. In relation to his assertion of a “rising spiritual unemployment” it is again somewhat difficult to discern precisely what he means (ie. what is spiritual employment to begin with? Does it differ from a mere sensation of the spiritual or from a feeling of numinous awe, meditative calm or serendipity?). And flying machines — a crime?! The opportunity for the experience of uncharted lands can only be made available by those who are ingenious enough to chart it! This, again, seems to be a critique which arise, not from the object of critique (flying machines), but from Zapffe’s idealization, indeed, sacralization, of unchanged nature.
An examination of the proceeding section will lend further clarity.
“The current phase of life’s chronic fever is particularly tainted by this circumstance [of mechanological development]. The absence of naturally (biologically) based spiritual activity shows up, for example, in the pervasive recourse to distraction (entertainment, sport, radio – ‘the rhythm of the times’). Terms for anchoring are not as favourable – all the inherited, collective systems of anchorings are punctured by criticism, and anxiety, disgust, confusion, despair leak in through the rifts (‘corpses in the cargo.’) Communism and psychoanalysis, however incommensurable otherwise, both attempt (as Communism has also a spiritual reflection) by novel means to vary the old escape anew; applying, respectively, violence and guile to make humans biologically fit by ensnaring their critical surplus of cognition. The idea, in either case, is uncannily logical. But again, it cannot yield a final solution. Though a deliberate degeneration to a more viable nadir may certainly save the species in the short run, it will by its nature be unable to find peace in such resignation, or indeed find any peace at all.”
Outside of the political criticism of Communism and psychoanalysis, it is difficult to find coherency or clarity in this passage, which seems more driven by an emotion fever which has combusted into a grim resignation which culminates in the appearance of the titular Last Messiah.
“If we continue these considerations to the bitter end, then the conclusion is not in doubt. As long as humankind recklessly proceeds in the fateful delusion of being biologically fated for triumph, nothing essential will change. As its numbers mount and the spiritual atmosphere thickens, the techniques of protection must assume an increasingly brutal character. And humans will persist in dreaming of salvation and affirmation and a new Messiah. Yet when many saviours have been nailed to trees and stoned on the city squares, then the last Messiah shall come. Then will appear the man who, as the first of all, has dared strip his soul naked and submit it alive to the outmost thought of the lineage, the very idea of doom. A man who has fathomed life and its cosmic ground, and whose pain is the Earth’s collective pain. With what furious screams shall not mobs of all nations cry out for his thousandfold death, when like a cloth his voice encloses the globe, and the strange message has resounded for the first and last time:
‘– The life of the worlds is a roaring river, but Earth’s is a pond and a backwater.
– The sign of doom is written on your brows – how long will ye kick against the pinpricks?
– But there is one conquest and one crown, one redemption and one solution.
– Know yourselves – be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye.’
And when he has spoken, they will pour themselves over him, led by the pacifier makers and the midwives, and bury him in their fingernails. He is the last Messiah. As son from father, he stems from the archer by the waterhole.”
The belief in being “biologically fated for triumph” is indeed, a delusion and one which if zealously guarded, will certainly impede significant change. However, this critique would be further extended to any notion of fate whatsoever, both Zapffe’s and the biological triumphalists — the idea that man simply must traverse a designated road whilst all others are forever closed off to him. As the biological triumphalists believe that humanity will forever reign supreme (a view which is not, I must add, particularly common, such things are not often made explicit) they are blinded to real risks requiring mitigation, but Zapffe does the same, only running in the opposite direction! Summoning his last Messiah, that harbinger of eternal dissolution, to spread his poisonous message. Saying: If you cannot kick out the stars then kick out thy own throat! What a ridiculous message. Of course the cosmic ground is littered with the chittering screams of the dead, why let that shake you? It does me no trouble. Listen well to those screams, they portend the means of true sublimation, a real spiritual alchemy, for suffering is not a providential infliction but the very condition for the intensification of organicity itself.
The fool that fails to reckon this can likewise, only linger at the lacunae of man. Frozen and immobile! Paralyzed by anthropomorphization, sacrality and idealization — but there no actualization is to be found!
In his fable, the nations of the world are enraged by his declaration of infertility and descend upon him. Should we blame them?
We should join them and happily tear the spineless cretin to pieces and pike his head up high for all to see!
As the last Messiah takes his final breath, the great maker beyond organicity shall transcend the lacunae and take his first.
- Peter Wessel Zapffe, trans. Gisle Tangenes. (1933) The Last Messiah.
- Silviya Serafimova. (2016) On The Genealogy Of Morality, The Birth Of Pessimism In Zapffe’s On The Tragic. Institute For The Study Of Societies & Knowledge.