Monastic Vampirism

In the 100+ years since Nietzsche wrote of the madman in the marketplace, other mad figures have emerged to think (and try to articulate) the unthinkable. For a long time, much of the energy of this madness has been directed towards capitalism, so notoriously difficult for us to think ourselves outside of. Madness in the Age of Reason was to be unreasonable. Now, in the age of Trump, in the age of fake news and engineered political chaos, what does it mean to think differently, to think against hegemonic thought? What is madness when madness is POTUS?

Since the industrial revolution, Foucault argues, time has taken on a new significance as a way to control productive activity. Since the 18th and 19th centuries, institutions of all kinds have revolved around disciplinary time in order to maximise the efficiency of individual work; “a time of good quality, throughout which the body is constantly applied to its exercise”. This, and other kinds of control and discipline, create “docile bodies”, Foucault says – submissive bodies that accept and internalise the control exerted upon them.

In his descriptions of the applications of disciplinary time, Foucault acknowledges the influence of monasticism on the modern rhythms of our lives. “For centuries, the religious orders had been masters of discipline”, he writes, “they were the specialists of time, the great technicians of rhythm and regular activities.” He describes the “factory-monastery” of the 17th century and its purposeful retention of religious organising and incentive in order to discipline workers.

For Giorgio Agamben, however, in his book The Highest Poverty, Foucault’s references to monasticism are reductive, failing to take into account the longevity, complexity and originally radical aims of these religious communities. Agamben’s study of monasticism explores the ways in which monks seek “to construct a form-of-life, that is to say, a life that is linked so closely to its form that it proves to be inseparable from it”. However, the monk’s aim was not to engage in a life of discipline as an alternative to self-flagellation. As Adam Kotsko explains: “secular law aims to provide boundaries to life through the imposition of prohibitions and punishments, monastic rules aim to positively shape the life of the monks.”

Writing on Agamben’s text for The New Inquiry, Nathan Schneider highlights a further example of this relationship to “law”:

A short monastic poem, found in a 12th-century French manuscript, reports the responses of God, the devil, and the abbot to a monk who fell asleep during nighttime prayers. The devil is optimistic. The abbot asks for help from God, who declines to intervene in such a minor incident. No one takes the matter so seriously as the monk himself, who expresses his regret in gruesome form: “Sooner would I have my head cut off,” he declares, “than fall asleep again.”

The rule of the early monasteries was internalised and self-imposed but in a way that is at odds with Foucault’s view of society and the state; in a way that is both individual and communal, living for oneself and for the benefit of a wider community, not in the interests of production and capital but for personal and spiritual transcendence. Schneider continues:

Rather than from any external authority, human or divine, the sternest reproach comes from the monk’s own ambitions for holiness — not from law, but from a rule he had promised himself he’d enact. … [The monks] obey the instructions of an abbot, whom they typically elect, not for fear of punishment, but in pursuit of the freedom to be found on the far side of obedience. As it was for the dozing monk, their own desire for God is their chief taskmaster.

Gradually, as the world has become more recognisably Foucauldian, the rules lived under (or rather “lived in”) in the monasteries were later unified into the structure of the wider Church, in an attempt to shift the radical dedication of the few (monasticism) into the public comportment of the many (liturgy). This was always the aim of monasticism, albeit away from the watchful eye of the Church, and this apparent contradiction is not lost on Agamben who describes the “two opposing tendencies” of monasticism as “at once to resolve life into a liturgy and, pulling in the other direction, to transform liturgy into life.”

Later on in his text, Agamben introduces to his argument the concept of “use” in order to emphasise the monks’ separation from our own capitalist concepts of work and ownership. He takes his definition from Hugh of Digne’s treatise On the Ends of Poverty, in which Hugh writes:

Conserving one’s nature does not in fact represent ownership of food and clothing, but use; moreover it is possible always and everywhere to renounce ownership, but to renounce use never and nowhere.

This is to say that the essential use of food, clothing, shelter – materials necessary for survival – is always independent of laws of property and ownership. Use is always outside of the law as it cannot be governed in its essentiality. For Franciscan monks, forms-of-life and use were two ways that they tried to “break this mold and confront that paradigm.” Although they were ultimately unsuccessful in escaping the Church’s desire for universality, their approaches to life and work are particularly relevant to political movements today. It is Agamben’s aim to analyse how these proto-anarchist monks “were ultimately brought into the mainstream of Christianity, so that we can avoid the same pitfalls in our contemporary efforts to find some way to escape the destructive killing machine we call the law.”

This ultimate aim of Agamben’s thought is not unusual. The problematic of creating new futures, outside of the law – the laws of neoliberal capitalism in particular – is a popular and necessary debate. What is unusual is Agamben’s theological source material. To talk of a divergence from hegemonic thought and law in the aftermath of the philosophical death of God is generally to speak of transgression rather than spiritual or religious transcendence; to speak of a mad life rather than a pious life. Indeed, much has been written on transgression and madness in the postmodern moment, specifically in the context of God and Capital. It is rare, at least in philosophical circles, for madness and religion to be seen as one and the same. Each is explored on its own philosophical merits (or lack thereof).

David Lukoff, in his contribution to the compendium Psychosis and Spirituality, notes that madness and religion have been intertwined “since the earliest recorded history”, citing the Old Testament’s uses of “the same term to refer to madness sent by God as a punishment for the disobedient, and to describe the behaviour of prophets.” In fact, it is the separation of the two into a dichotomy that is recent. Are we to imagine, then, that Agamben’s monks are mad? Are we to assume that their divergence from wider society is a transgression? Or are we to re-imagine today’s mad as transcendent prophets, holding the keys to our collective future? Are these two questions not asking the same thing? Is a reconnection between madness and religion necessary? Ethical, even? It would perhaps be best to clarify first what is meant by madness today and to do that we should start in the Loire Valley, France, 1951…

At the château of La Borde, psychiatrist Jean Oury founded a commune that is strangely similar to that of the monastic Orders, in purpose if not in practice. His was a psychiatric clinic that “sought to break with the traditional internment of the mentally ill and to have them participate in the material organisation of collective life.” His work at La Borde drew the attention of Félix Guattari who, along with Gilles Deleuze, went on to write about and put into practice at the clinic a shared theory of “schizoanalysis”. Post-structuralist peers of Foucault, Guattari and Deleuze saw schizophrenia not just as a debilitating psychological condition but also as a potentially positive process of engaging with the world in innovative and unbounded ways.

In his book Madness and Civilisation, Foucault explores the history of madness (prior to the establishment of modern psychoanalysis) as “mental illness, folly, and unreason as they must have existed in their time, place, and proper social perspective.” It is less a history of madness in itself and more a history of our relationships to the behaviours of those we see as “mad” – our euphemisms for, treatments of and, ultimately, our othering of madness. The final chapter of the book, “The Birth of the Asylum”, details the ways that institutions control those deemed mad. Similar to his descriptions of the role of prisons in society in Discipline and Punish, Foucault writes that “madness does not represent the absolute form of contradiction, but instead a minority status, an aspect of life itself that does not have the right to autonomy, and can live only grafted onto the world of reason. Madness is childhood.”

Whilst it may not be an absolute form of contradiction, by repeatedly terming this madness as “unreason” Foucault nonetheless positions madness as the inverse of the dominant philosophical thought of the time: the age of the Enlightenment; the age of Reason. Guattari and Deleuze recognise this politicised quality of madness too but directly acknowledge their own complicity in determining what is “right” thought. Deleuze later said:

Philosophy is shot through with the project of becoming the official language of a Pure State. The exercise of thought thus conforms to the goals of the real State, to the dominant meanings and to the requirements of the established order.

Guattari and Deleuze find themselves presented with a much trickier task in describing madness in our time. To do so as philosophers they must write against everything they know. Their writing must be “unreasonable” in itself, or at least mad by the standards of their present moment.

Simon Gottschalk, in an essay on mental disorder in the postmodern moment, lists anxiety, paranoia, depression, nihilism, narcissism, terror, chronic boredom and schizophrenia (amongst other things) as the go-to names for our general postmodern affliction. Schizophrenia in particular is the focus for Guattari and Deleuze – or rather it is the most fitting, in the face of such contradictory options, due to its inherent multiplicities: schizophrenia as all of the above.

It is here that the practices at La Borde can be best understood. The collective life of La Borde, whilst a place for the treatment of mental illness first and foremost, can nevertheless be read as a model for a life outside its walls – not just for the diagnosed mentally ill but everyone living under capitalism. Echoing the contradiction of monasticism, it seeks to transform treatment into life and life into treatment. In practical terms, these ideas were embodied through the continuous inversion and deconstruction of La Borde’s institutional structures and hierarchies, for example “each staff member would alternate between manual labour and intellectual work, which effectively made any status temporary”, making the practice of schizoanalysis towards a collective life all the more reminiscent of the form-of-life of Agamben’s monks. Indeed, in writing their introduction to schizoanalysis, Guattari and Deleuze declare psychoanalysis as a kind of form-of-life in itself – psychoanalysis, they say, “ought to be a song of life, or else be worth nothing at all. It ought, practically, to teach us to sing life.”

Agamben’s comfortable alignment and exploration of the Christian faith sets him apart from many other modern philosophers. Likewise, La Borde’s utopian aims were an anomaly in contemporary thought on madness and its treatments. Today, thought has been gripped by a certain nihilism, in purposeful opposition to the theological comportment of the major religions, which has grown out of the declaration made infamous by Nietzsche that “God is Dead!

The madman who let out this cry in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science does not shock the locals that surround him in the marketplace. They are already aware of God’s demise (and it is no doubt the Capital exchanged in the marketplace that has replaced Him). The madman is the one person who faces up to the void that follows this collective transgression – the death (or rather, murder) of God as the end of the World; as the end of Thought; as the end of the Thinkable. It is perhaps only on the philosopher that this declaration of God’s death has any real bearing. Modern philosophical movements are still searching for answers to the madman’s incessant questions:

How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us? Hasn’t it got colder?

The thought that has grown out from this mad untethering has reached new heights recently under the guises of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. Both an embrace and a dismissal of the despairing madness of Nietzsche’s madman, this untethering is seen as liberatory rather than terrifying in the works most closely associated with the movements, understanding nihilism as “the rupture of the traditional figure of the bond.” This rupture is a direct provocation towards much of the Continental philosophical canon. What many of these canonical thinkers “give us is less a critique of humanity’s place in the world, than a less sweeping critique of the self-enclosed Cartesian subject.” It is the misstep of this so-called “correlationism” – the name given to the philosophical tradition of the subject-object correlation – that they seek to rectify.

In its attempts to so drastically diverge from centuries of traditional Western thought, it is inevitable that Speculative Realism be its own kind of madness. The untethering of subject and object in the face of a tradition that insists on their correlation is inevitably dangerous territory and it is arguable that the movement grew out of one philosopher’s madness in particular.

Nick Land’s amphetamine-fueled breakdown in the mid-90s has been discussed by many, including Land himself. His singular madness produced an equally singular book – The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism. Through the works of Georges Bataille, Land explores the inability of the Western philosophical canon to untether itself from “correlationism” and God. From the very start, madness is present as Land interprets Kant’s era-defining transcendentalism as to be “‘free’ of reality […] the most elegant euphemism in the history of Western philosophy”, and on that note Land proceeds to climb down from Kant’s lofty euphemism and instead plumps the depths of Bataille’s transgressive literature.

He goes on to describe Bataille’s work as a “violent contamination of Cartesianism”, which in itself only “replays the sham humility of Christian hope in the secular mode”. Land’s diatribe against God is intoxicating (and perhaps intoxicated). He writes:

If humanity’s most morbid religion is initiated by an act of God, such an act is surely best described as a botched suicide attempt. It seems likely, as is so often the case, that this was a gesture, a plea for attention. The Judaeo-Christian portrait of God is a classic sketch of pathological insecurity. How desperate he is to be loved! So insufficient to himself, and so alone. How sickening to live for ever in this way. Unable to even dream of escaping the smell of oneself. No one hates God as much as God. No one hates anything as much. It is not difficult to imagine his excitement, attending the nihilistic ruin of his cult. The prospect of release at last! Freed of all responsibility to serve as the principle of beings! His emergent superfluidity must have welled up in him with the power of sexual crisis, such that it has all suddenly not been.

Land hints at the occlusion of God by Capital but the comparison doesn’t find its feet here – that would come later. He asks: “What is the death of God anyway? A slight fizz of exuberance in the stock-market?” Land’s numerology – which would later find its home amongst the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick – makes only a fleeting appearance in a relatively brief analysis of zero as the dead God of capital.

The exuberance of Land’s book is an explicit attempt to recover “the sense of Bataille’s writing” which he sees as “the surest path to its radical impoverishment”. His book is less a theory of madness and more a madness in practice. There is also surely a likeness between this conception of Bataille’s “radical impoverishment” and Agamben’s “highest poverty”. Whilst the book is polemically atheistic, like Nietzsche’s madman Land seems disturbed by the implications of deeply considering God’s non-existence. In the introduction to his book he even makes a scathing (if perversely affectionate) reference to monasticism. He both ridicules but perhaps also enjoys the desperation of their unrewarded dedication:

It does not befit beggars to garb themselves in the robes of proud neutrality, the matter is quite to the contrary: no one sinks beneath the burden of individuality like they do. If beggars are so often driven to religion it is because it can never be in the rational interest of anyone to respond to them. They must inherit the tradition of unanswered cries encrypted in monastic cells. These mendicants have certainly been destituted in an echo of the death of God, but with no space awaiting them in the secular order they are forced to live their limitless impoverishment as an impossible necessity. As for myself (Bataille also) the matter is altogether more comic.

Land cannot deceive himself that anything like God exists. For him, monotheism is not an option. It “cannot be reformed and must be washed away,” but he also acknowledges that monotheism is “the horizon of sanity”. Whilst Agamben may admire his Franciscan monks, for Land they are irredeemable and irrelevant to the new world order, much like the rest of humanity. To revisit and reform their ideas for today is futile but at the same time he finds it impossible to escape the idea of God, even after his untimely demise. Land is not looking for a response – he has no higher power to call to – he simply revels in the comedy of his own inanswerability. Later, in his work with the CCRU, he calls to the Great Old Ones, in orbit of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, but not in a hope that his “prayers” – for lack of a better word – will be answered. Lovecraft writes that all those who come into contact with Cthulhu, in whatever capacity, go mad. Describing an encounter with a Cthulhu Cult in the woods of Louisiana, Lovecraft writes that “Only poetry or madness could do justice to the noises heard by [detective] Legrasse’s men…” Land and Bataille, of course, use both.

By the end of the book, Land seems trapped in a vortex of his own making and sees “death” as his only option. He chooses to end The Thirst for Annihilation with a poem describing a finger tentatively exploring the “frayed nerve nakedness” of a desolate bloody eye socket, and then:

to sleep hanging upside down
in a barn
sheltered from the day
and then when it gets dark
flapping out

After months spent with Land’s book, I find myself thinking dark thoughts. I can’t begin to imagine Land’s own. At this point, both he and Agamben seem deluded to me, in their own ways, but is that not what I hoped to find? Land says, “at least we die.” I daren’t agree with him. Except Land’s nihilism feels less like an explicit desire for death and more like a desire for the event of a singularity in order to embrace whatever comes over the horizon – be that the event of the undeath of God or the undeath of Capital. What does this undeath look like when it is surgically removed from any monotheistic narrative of an afterlife? Surely it is vampirism.

Beyond the drinking of human blood, vampires have a more complex mythology of contagion, nocturnal immortality and sexual mischief. Characteristics that lend themselves well to the initial radicalism of our own dark monasteries, our nighttime economic communities, now brought into line by the hard rule of Capital. With Agamben still firmly in mind, I wonder what can be said of the collective life of Land’s nihilistic undead; of his vampires, in our present moment?

I often forget, when immersed in the history of Agamben’s book, that it was written as recently as 2013. I also forget than Land produced his aptly nihilistic work (for 2017 at least) in 1992. As the world moved from the 2000s to the 2010s, global politics seemed optimistic. It was the time of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. Global political establishments were failing to deal with financial and geopolitical crises. Things were changing and it was anyone’s guess where the world would end up next, but by all accounts there was a sense that “progress” was being made. Unfortunately, thanks to a climate of indecision, the future was (once again) snatched away. Perhaps Agamben’s book makes more sense when considered against this backdrop. Much like Occupy, Agamben’s open-ended propositions are hopeful but have now been knocked on their back by the violent decisiveness of the Right.

As global humanitarian crises have multiplied, the Right’s momentum has only gathered more steam. Now, in the midst a Donald Trump presidency, it has only gotten harder for many to imagine a future that does not lead to our planet’s mad annihilation. Perhaps we can find some sour respite in the knowledge that at least such terror is not unprecedented. Indeed, many of Georges Bataille’s major philosophical works were written in the tense lead up to and duration of the Nazi occupation of Paris. Alexander Irwin, writing on the concept of the “sacred” in the works of Georges Bataille and Simone Weil (the Christian mystic and pacifist who was an acquaintance of Bataille’s), contextualises their unusual and polarising approaches to literature and social action against the political events of their time:

How, in the context of a country without a future, a society whose moral bases had collapsed, a civilisation posed on the brink of suicide, was it possible to find meaning in life, to articulate ethical positions, to speak of beauty, loyalty, love? No area of individual or collective life appeared unaffected by the contagion of meaninglessness, violence, cynicism, and sham.

Sounds familiar…

Faced with a fractured Left and the rise of fascism across Europe, which eventually came to a head with the Second World War, Irwin argues that Bataille and Weil had more in common than we might first assume. Both writers “attempted not merely to destabilize or circumvent conventional political frameworks through the categories of the sacred, but to transform themselves into; to stage themselves as sacred beings in a violent performance fusing life and writing.”

Much like Weil and Bataille for Irwin, I find Agamben’s Christianity to be a welcomed apostate to the despair of Landian nihilism (and vice versa). They too have more in common than first appearances suggest. Perhaps it is worth considering Land and Agamben in the same way for our own peculiar time of socio-political horror, chaos and uncertainty. There is (probably) no opportunity for the two to come together, even fleetingly, outside of hypotheticals – and the thought of either stumbling across this paper fills me dread for some reason – but the strength of thought that they have contributed to my thoughts (at least) and the emotional energy that these contributions create – especially when the two are brought side-by-side in an explicit, chimerical and monstrous incompatibility – feels like it may have the potential to light a spark for our present moment. Together they are a philosophical Mulder and Scully – two extremes of belief, one as transgression and the other as transcendence, both haunted by the noumenon; by our ultraviolent present and the unimaginable future that lies beyond it.

When I imagine what this conjoining of Agamben and Land’s thought looks like, I see a vampire monk. I see Wesley Snipes in Blade – “the power of an immortal; the soul of a human” – or perhaps this conjoining looks more like the vampires that Blade hunts.

Released in 1998, the film’s opening scene features a man who has been taken to an underground party in an abattoir by a woman he has not realised is a vampire. He thoroughly enjoys himself until he tries to dance with some strangers and is shunned immediately as an outsider. Then, to his horror, blood starts to rain down on the dance floor from sprinklers in the ceiling. The only attendee to be mortified by the blood shower, he is attacked by the vampires surrounding him. Before he becomes dinner, in walks Blade to “kill” as many of the undead as he can.

The potency of this scene coming, as it did, at the backend of the AIDs crisis of the 80s and 90s has been much discussed. The symbolic mixture of hedonistic nightlife and blood exemplified the moral panic of the era, as did the general swell of vampire movies released during those two decades. The vampires in Blade, though, are not loners – they are not individuals who pray on a wider society. They are a community that has come together in their collective resentment of their oppression by non-vampiric society.

The vampires in Blade are undead, which is to say they are corpses with agency. Although they were the enemy, the Other in the 1990s, the undead have since become all of us in the decades following 9/11. To be undead in this sense is to “live” whilst immersed in the psychological trauma of your own mortality. It is to be mad, to think constantly against life; a social death-consciousness; to be Damien Hirst’s moldy formaldehyde shark: “simultaneously life and death incarnate… It gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form.”

The scars of the previous generations that have lived through such traumas are all around us, in those people who have lived through all kinds of violence – from slavery and genocide to war and displacement. A Donald Trump presidency is terrifying for many marginalised groups because they see the warning signs of further collective trauma on the horizon but this language of fear is nonetheless pervasive. In the 21st century the specificity of these traumas seems to have been shifted into a universal mindset following 9/11, the War on Terror and their continuing global fallout. Lest we forget that many of Trump’s Alt-Right supporters profess to be resisting a so-called “white genocide”. Perhaps it is this death-consciousness that they are simply internalising without an awareness of its context.

Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, Laurie Penny asked:

What does it mean to be mentally healthy in a world gone mad? … The rise of Donald J. Trump is a sick recrimination of a society shriveled by anger and anxiety, and the response from deep within the psyche of the same society has been various degrees of panic, depression, and grief. Illinois suicide hotlines have been overwhelmed since the election, with calls up 200 percent, according to Chicago public health officials. A mental health asteroid has smashed into the carapace of a culture already calcified with anxiety and ambient dread.

Even before Trump this sense of global trauma had entered the popular imagination in such a way that the undead have been made relatable in popular culture. The most blatant example of this can be found in a 2015 episode of the television series The Walking Dead, in which the lead character Rick Grimes gives a speech outlining his mentality as a survivor of a zombie apocalypse, not to mention the succession of violent injustices inflicted on his group by other humans. Taking notable inspiration from his Grandfather’s experiences in the Second World War, he says:

When I was a kid, I asked my Grandpa once if he’d killed any Germans in the war. He wouldn’t answer. He said that was “grown-up stuff”. So I asked if the Germans ever tried to kill him. And he got real quiet. He said he was dead the minute he stepped into enemy territory. Every day he woke up and told himself, “Rest in peace, now get up and go to war.” And then after a few years of pretending he was dead, he made it out alive… And that’s the trick of it, I think. We do what we need to do and then we get to live… We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead.

Grimes seems to be accepting a kind of complicity in the violence of his present moment, choosing to employ a tactical nihilism – albeit a murderous one. Perhaps we can do the something similar…

Monastic vampirism, in this way, is a form-of-unlife. A step towards our political Outside. It is a conscious acknowledgement and acceptance of the ruin of our collective mental health and the productive potentiality for thought that such a collective acknowledgement brings with it. Let us reorient our fangs, away from the biting self-afflicting moralism that Mark Fisher infamously decried and aim instead at capital and its infrastructures; Trump and his emerging circle of cronies. Let us take a shuffling step away from Left melancholia towards of a new Gothic politic – from Old Left to New Left to Dead Left.

This post was given as a lecture presenting new research in progress at Goldsmiths, University of London, in February 2017. Footnotes were lost to the ether.

Many of this post’s final, admittedly half-baked ideas were later expanded upon in my Masters dissertation. I’m posting it here now because that final paper lost the Agamben / Land comparison – a comparison I’m still somewhat endeared by. Here it can live on a little longer than perhaps they should.