State Decay: Kant, Bataille and Patchwork

As has been clear since the beginning, the overarching project of this blog is to look for exits — exits of various kinds from various things. This has inevitably involved a consideration of the politics of secession and patchwork, which I’m becoming more and more engaged with.

The most well-known (and controversial) introduction to patchwork comes from Mencius Moldbug:

The basic idea of Patchwork is that, as the crappy governments we inherited from history are smashed, they should be replaced by a global spiderweb of tens, even hundreds, of thousands of sovereign and independent mini-countries, each governed by its own joint-stock corporation without regard to the residents’ opinions. If residents don’t like their government, they can and should move. The design is all “exit,” no “voice.”

Given Moldbug’s reputation — and Nick Land’s also, who has done the most work to popularise and extend Moldbug’s ideas — the initial reaction from those who hear about patchwork in this context is one of fear: a fear of everything to the right. “Isn’t patchwork just a fascist system?” you hear them cry, again and again. By definition, it is the opposite. That is not to say it is an idea to be taken lightly, of course.

Vince Garton offers the most comprehensive articulation of this in his essay “Leviathan Rots“:

[Patchwork] should not be dismissed as ‘fascist’. It reprises a tradition of Western political thought that reaches back across the doctrine of cuius regio to the very origins of nationalism in the medieval French reaction against the universalist pretences of the Emperor; in its substance, it is clearly antagonistic to the universality of the fascist state with its insatiable thirst for conquest and death.

Patchwork calls for a complete restructuring of what we think of as politics today. However, what many of those nervous onlookers fail to realise is that it is towards a radical restructuring that we seem to be headed.

With states in the US in open rebellion, repeatedly flexing their autonomy and resisting Trump’s policies, and with Catalan, Scotland and various UK counties seeking secession via progressive devolution from their own centralised systems of governance, to ignore patchwork now is only to bury your head in the sand, no matter where your politics lie.

Before undead 2017 rolled over in its grave and became the even more putrefic 2018, I said that I wanted to read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason over the next year and I had planned to narrate my readings on this blog. I feel like patchwork has emerged as a good background against which to consider the initial implications of Kant’s transcendental argument and the stakes of it today. This was crystallised for me — as most things are at the moment — during a seminar with Robin Mackay.

Robin summarised patchwork as a “spatial sorting of differentiation, connected to a sense of progressive time, or at the very least a sense of political temporality”. This foregrounded a reading of “Lemurian Time War“, a Ccru text which fictionalises and occults many of the dynamics inherent to patchwork.

Our reading of this text was preceded by a discussion of contemporary “Left” and “Right” political subjectivities (broadly speaking). Both sides of this political binary in the West seem to be, in their own ways, preoccupied with identity.

The identity politics of the Left, whilst having their uses in some contexts, tend only to increasingly fragment identities whilst nonetheless flying the flag of Universalism. The Right, on the other hand, and the Alt-Right in particular, have repeatedly attracted controversy for their talk of ethnostates and the more general revitalisation of nationalist discourses around the world.

Robin’s analysis of this was that, whilst identity is the shared contention, the Left has an identitarian (temporal?) solution to the perceived problem whilst the Right has a spatial solution. Both, however, are concerned with limits and utopian hopes of their transcendence.

Fast forward some weeks and I’m reading @Outsideness replies on the timeline:

Land’s comments here are given (indirectly) in response to a Quillette article, “Is Democracy Doomed?“. The article notes the paradox of progressive communitarianism as it appears to us in our present moment, particularly online (discussed briefly on this blog here):

Because sites like Twitter allow us to curate our own sources of news and information, we have effectively segregated ourselves online. As [Yascha] Mounk and other critics note, the increased ease with which we can communicate with anybody in the world has led us to communicate less with political opponents, and political opponents are the people with whom a healthy liberal democracy requires us to communicate.

It is here that the inevitability of patchwork comes into play. It comes to resemble a system of “sorting differentiation” that would, at present, suit both sides. As politics accelerates in this direction, this rejection of “communication” nonetheless poses further challenges to contemporary subjectivities.

This challenge has been explored here previously, and messily, in relation to performance art group COUM Transmissions. Without retreading too much ground, I want to better articulate the stakes of this thought here, this time via Kant.

Philosophy has always been characterised by its marginality; it continually haunts its own borders. Kant is an important figure, in so far as, up until Kant, philosophy has been marginal and had constantly tried to exit itself, but only ‘theatrically’, through a series of rejections of the foregoing philosophy, but always nevertheless advocating Philosophy as such. With Kant there is a genuine break, whose effects are felt to this day.

Kant’s Copernican revolution brought an unprecedented challenge to subjectivity. Occasioned by his transcendental argument, this challenge has become increasingly applicable to modern politics and to our potential patchwork futures.

If, as quoted above, the Copernican revolution can be understood as a way of exiting Philosophy as such, patchwork can perhaps be framed as a political methodology for exiting Politics as such.

But exit to where? To what? What is the Outside to politics?

The Outside, in the Critique of Pure Reason, is Kant’s description for the limits of knowledge. It is that which we cannot know; an unknown that is inferred by what Kant calls the transcendental: the horizon of thought. It nonetheless presents thought itself with various challenges for us to think through and, by extension, in this instance, provides philosophy and politics with various constitutive challenges as well.

Kant writes that the general principles of knowledge can only be based on the conditions by which we obtain that knowledge. Because our experience is specific to each of us, we cannot extract a general truth from any experience that we might have. And so, for Kant, the best we can do is deduce the universal conditions of experience; the conditions under which experience as such is possible.

These conditions are described by Kant through the logical “categories” through which we describe our experience — the most fundamental of these being time and space. There is no transcendence involved here — there is no reaching the outside. The transcendental rather maps the event horizon of the knowable.

The knowable, for us, according to Kant, is limited to phenomena — “appearances” that constitute experience as it is conditioned by the categories of time and space. Following Kant’s system to its own end begs the question: what is behind experience? For Kant, we can’t know the answer to this and therefore cannot talk about it with any authority (despite philosophy and theology consistently attempting to do so — in Kant’s time especially).

In this way, Kant’s philosophy is entirely immanent. It leaves you with a transcendental horizon, “beyond” which is an outside of which you can’t say anything. However, you also cannot deny its existence. This unknown, in its plurality, is called the noumena.

In conceptualising the transcendental in this way, Kant invents a type of horror, and this horror has persisted throughout the centuries as a challenge to subjectivity. It is a horror best exemplified by H.P. Lovecraft, the most Kantian of horror writers (until, perhaps, the very explicit example provided to us by Adam Roberts…)

For Kant, as for Lovecraft, the Outside is that which, in our experience, routinely emerges as that absence-for-us which we cannot quantify. We can give this absence many names, be it God, Cthulhu, the consciousness of others, intelligent extraterrestrial life, or even just the true nature of the objects all around us.

Such speculative projections are inherent to human reason, such is Kant’s focus of study, but Kant’s argument is that we must know and accept that speculative projections are all that these thoughts can be and we cannot claim that they correspond to the real, to the things-in-themselves as they appear to us, with absolute certainty.

God remains the most obvious example to draw upon. Human reason necessarily forms the concept of God. This is arguably an inevitability as we attempt to assign some agency to noumena. That doesn’t mean we can say that God exists. The transcendental is a line drawn in the sand, allowing us to have the idea of God but not God-in-itself.

On this pivot, this speculative quandary can all too easily become an existential one. Robin, in his semimar (my notes from which I am drawing on here), framed the ultimate horror of Kant’s argument through the question: “What about me?”

If the self is a series of phenomena, then “I” become something that likewise exists in experience as it is conditioned by time and space — which is to say, I experience myself as I appear in time and space: time as our inner sense of the subject; space as our outer sense of objects. So, in Kant’s framework, even the self is an appearance.

If the self is an appearance then what is the self-in-itself? What is the self seen outside the self? What is the noumena of myself?

The Lovecraftian horror of these spiralling questions necessarily brings us back to patchwork as a way of sorting these consistently warring subjectivities of the contemporary left and right. As Fisher wrote in The Weird and the Eerie: “There is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was.” A consideration of one necessitates a consideration of the other.

As the big tent of the Left wrestles with these Lovecraftian questions internally, calcifying identity into ever more fragmentary pockets of the subject, the big tent of the Right looks outside itself and cuts up territories rather than (or perhaps in lieu of its ability to) properly comprehend its contemporary Self. However, surely the best solution here is a hybridisation of the two? An exacerbation of the Fisherian folding?

The dynamics of this problematic are laid out most clearly in Deleuze’s essay on Walt Whitman, albeit between Europe and North America rather than a political right and left. (Thanks to Edmund Berger for pointing towards this essay.)

Europeans have an innate sense of organic totality, or composition, but they have to acquire the sense of the fragment, and can do so only through a tragic reflection or an experience of disaster. Americans, on the contrary, have a natural sense for the fragment, and what they have to conquer is the feel for the totality, for beautiful composition.

It could be argued that Deleuze and Guattari, in their most explicitly Kantian mode, take up this problem together as well. After all, the processes of de- and reterritorialisation are inherently concerned with subjectivity but are nonetheless described in the spatial terms of sovereign “territory”. (This, however, is a tangent to save another time.)

What interests me in terms of Deleuze’s summary is how it has slipped in recent times. 9/11, as an experience of disaster, gave America the feeling of a totality, and in this way it birthed a monster. Here in the UK, the Left in particular may pride themselves on their burgeoning European identity but, frankly, this has never sat well with this isle. It has always been a goal rather than a reality and the divisions of our philosophies over the decades have illustrated the division of our images of thought most explicitly.

In following the lead of our American cousins, England, despite its size, has hoped to mirror the USA’s proud sense of self, whilst at the same time only further encouraging a fragmentation of its peoples. We have always been an island of collective counties rather than fragmentary states but who knows how long this will last…

This tangent above will be better explored in a later post, which will consider the UK’s contemporary politics more closely and also bring in theories of seasteading but for now let us stick to the problem outlined by Kant.

Time, or ‘the form of inner sense’, is the capstone of Kant’s system, organizing the integration of concepts with sensations, and thus describing the boundaries of the world (of possible experience). Beyond it lie eternally inaccessible ‘noumenal’ tracts — problematically thinkable, but never experienced — inhabited by things-in-themselves. The edge of time, therefore, is the horizon of the world.

In the early 20th century, cosmological physics was returned to the edge of time, and the question: what ‘came before’ the Big Bang? For cosmology no less than for transcendental philosophy — or even speculative theology — this ‘before’ could not be precedence (in time), but only (non-spatial) outsideness, beyond singularity. It indicated a timeless non-place cryptically adjacent to time, and even inherent to it. The carefully demystified time of natural science, calculable, measurable, and continuous, now pointed beyond itself, re-activated at the edges.

The above quote, from an early Xenosystems post, explores the vast unravelling that a consideration of the contemporary implications of Kant’s thought necessarily occasions. It is a brilliantly concise introduction.

(As an aside: my experience of writing this post has been arduous, frustrating and stressful — attempting to put a leash on this thought and bend it to your interests and will is, appropriately, like trying to take Cerberus out on a lead for a game of fetch.)

It seems that the main issue for both sides of the ever-shifting political divide right now is to reconstitute both space and time; both outer and inner senses. Does Land begin from time, from a non-spatial outsideness, inherent to the templexity promised by neoreaction, because the Right already has a nature fluency with considerations of the spatial? Is the left’s problem, then, that it is overtly concerned with temporal inner sense — which is to say, subjectivity, or the subject, as the measure of time — to the point that it has no spatial self-awareness? Fixated on the self, there is little more horrifying to the left than outsideness (non-spatial or otherwise). Land’s short post “The Sad Left” makes this fairly clear also.

To answer these questions properly, I’ll have to continue my reading and come back to you…

What is obvious at present is that the Left no longer considers its outside. The trauma that the election of Trump occasioned in so many Leftist communities could be (and was) articulated as a Cthulhic trauma: “the unthinkable has happened — now what?”

It seems to me that, for the Left, a return to the unruly thought of the likes of Bataille will serve them better than a further strengthening of the walls of their inward-looking sense of self. Bataille, although he is seldom framed this way (although Land did a good job in The Thrist for Annihilation), seems like a man who has chased the ultimate conclusion of Kant’s thought in a time of great sociopolitical upheaval. He seems just as relevant to now as he was in the 1930s. The Left, however, has emboldened itself despite itself and sees itself as unassailable to the Right, building high walls of political piety around themselves, whilst also capturing themselves within their own castle, unable and unwilling to leave it or see themselves for what they have become. The Right has no interest in a takeover. It has more than proven its political adeptness outside the walls the Left has built around itself.

Alphonso Lingis, in his essay “Contact and Communication”, from perhaps the best essay collection I’ve bought ever (as far as my interests are concerned anyway) The Obsessions of Georges Bataille: Community and Communication, articulates the stakes of misdirected excommunications well:

The rational individual submits his observations and reasons to the judgement of anyone endowed with the power of insight and understanding. The practice of rational thought projects, beyond particular communities bound together by common practical projects for defense and productive work, the idea, idea-limit, or ideal of universal humanity. Today the electronic communication technology invented after the Second World War and distributed across the planet is taken to assume and promote this ideal of universal rational humanity.

But the integral rational agent, as Immanuel Kant depicts him, in fact does not communicate: instead in her words and her actions she makes herself an exemplar for everyone. For the rational agent to respect the other is to respect the law that rules in her and that binds her also.

Humans communicate, we commonly say, in order to build, and by building, a common work — a productive enterprise, civil society, and a state apparatus. Each then makes himself or herself a means and not an end. What are left are the roads, the high-rise buildings, corporations, and the states that absorb the builders into their anonymous material subsistence or subsistence as an anonymous regional or global order.

Georges Bataille separates the notion of communication from that of commonality or communion; for him “communication” designates the contact of an individual with what is and remains beyond him. Communication requires sovereign moments in individuals.

Given the state of our currents states, I feel like there is an assumption, encouraged by the fear of a theory from the Right, that patchwork is the instantiation of a vast network of groups each turning their backs against the other. However, to imagine a world of tens or hundreds of thousands of city-states or other communities is to necessitate communication. It seems that it is the sheer size of our states and their international systems of governance that discourages communication. We are all, in our millions, united by our nation’s telos, apparently, and so what need is communication with our outside under the guise of universalism?

Bataille writes in On Nietzsche:

But “communication” cannot take place without wounding or defiling the beings, is itself guilty. The good, in whatever way one envisions it, is the good of beings, but in wanting to attain it, we must ourselves question — in the night, through evil — the very being in relation to which we want it.

A fundamental principle is expressed as follows: “Communication” cannot take place between one full and intact being and another: it wants beings who question being in themselves, who place their being at the limit of death, of nothingness. The moral summit is the moment of risk, of the suspension of the being beyond itself, at the limit of nothingness.

Communication, in this way, is the form through which the state itself decays. However, to decay is not to fade to nothing. Every once-living thing, in its decomposition, allows innumerable differing microcosms to flourish, uninhibited and free. There is great beauty in decomposition, if only we would stop resisting it.

This is not, as has been discussed here recently, to relinquish agency or responsibility. Patchwork allows for the instantiation of a hitherto unrealised communication with and a responsibility towards Outsideness.

As Vince Garton writes:

States, of course, decay. It is something altogether more radical to posit that the state form itself will decay. We must turn from a patchwork of states to the infectious patchwork within the state, a recursive dissolution that leaves not a network of states, but an endless flux in which the state itself disintegrates into the very war that sustains it.

The Twitter Debate | Collapse


  1. “There is great beauty in decomposition, if only we would stop resisting it”
    really have you ever been in areas where the state has either collapsed or largely withdrawn?

    1. There’s a great difference between collapse and a natural process of decomposition. Hence the metaphor, as well as the quote from Vince to finish.

      1. but we aren’t literally going thru decomposition we are undergoing a series of collapses, don’t know Vince’s work well but Nick is willfully ignorant about the vital roles of infrastructures, perhaps yer writing on/as speculative fiction and I’ve missed the genre/point in which case apologies.

        1. Speculative, yes, but not fiction. Collapse seems to be what happens when a state, in its rigidity, is exposed to its outside and can’t adjust. That is the subtext of this whole post. Lovecraftian horror is the horror of collapse in this same mode, but limited to the individual rather than to a state. But many have explored ways that collapse is just the result of bad infrastructure, rather than the only feasible result of change. That’s the fallacy of capitalist realism. “Horrors are not all there is to the Outside”, as Mark wrote. Also, patchwork itself is multiplication of states and therefore infrastructures, is it not?

        2. patchwork is a fictional genre, failed and failing states is the news of the day. to think we can somehow manage/re-engineer this is more way-out/scifi than promethean fantasies of re-engineering the weirdings of the climate.

  2. Thanks for this – crystallised some thoughts that had been floating around but not settling. Getting this stuff into condensed and straightforward language is a welcome achievement.

  3. pretty intriguing how you technically link the lefty fantasy of a “safe space” to the opportunity it has given to the right to take over the larger outside. but it’s a “takeover” anyway. there’s a war, at least between the two, and only one wins, as one already has, for now.
    “Every once-living thing, in its decomposition, allows innumerable differing microcosms to flourish, uninhibited and free. There is great beauty in decomposition, if only we would stop resisting it.” yes, resistance generally sucks. deleuze taught us that. now we all affirm, for better or worse.
    but ….. the left died and innumerable 4channers flourished…. if i don’t see much beauty in that, maybe we should fast-forward to the third critique and talk a bit about taste… also, and more importantly, syria has now almost totally decomposed, so did iraq, and there wasn’t anything beautiful about that either. are we talking about natural death here? or did something kill something else? is some sense of realpolitik also inspiring us? unfortunately, political decomposition is not as beautiful as its strictly natural counterpart captured on time-lapse videos. this bit just ruined the whole post for me, almost. grrrrrr….
    but back to the main point. robyn makes so much sense, but he just sounds too annoyingly detached, like he just came down from mars (or wherever) to explain patchwork and he’ll be back up (or down) there right after the seminar… if we’re a bit more attached to this planet thingy we’re in, we’d be aware that there should be a path leading us from where we are now to the patchwork future (let’s say we all happen to LOVE patchwork overnight). how will the world be cut up into hundreds of thousands of swathes of land to be then autonomously but inter-dependently ruled? what happens to the resources, the raw materials we will nevertheless need even if we totally switch to bitcoin gov-corps? who will take on syria? the ‘wars’ that sustain the state form are incompatible with a patchwork model. and that is the fictional bit about patchwork. neo-empires and monopolies are more of a reality than this kind of ‘wishful thinking’, i’d say.
    there’s something about the noumenon vis-a-vis the body of the slave, the neither-subject-nor-object, but the drunk me can’t put it into words now. let’s see if i’ll come back to it later, or if you’ll crack it yourself…
    anyway, miss you much. x

    1. Like a previous commenter here, I want to stress that the difference between decomposition as a process, as I’m imagining it, is not the same as collapse. Evidently I need to clarify this and I plan to.

      The Left didn’t died and allow 4chan to flourish. Again, I think that point is already made here too. The Left stopped considering / taking its outside seriously. The Left stopped communicating and began to believe too much in its own universalism. When other conversations began to dominate, it didn’t know what to do and was unprepared. That’s not death, that’s having your head in the sand.

      A response to the rest, too, is to come. I do not see it as being as drastic as people assume it to be and I think, in some places, the signs of a move towards patchwork are already present, particularly in post-Brexit Britain. As Vince had already insinuated, a global patchwork is sort of an oxymoron. It’s not a globalist cure-all. We need “the infectious patchwork within the state, a recursive dissolution that leaves not a network of states, but an endless flux in which the state itself disintegrates into the very war that sustains it.” This is the process I see as state decomposition and the examples I already see as heading this way aren’t as dystopian as people seem to be assuming. I don’t think that “war”, in the sense Vince uses it, is in reference to international conflict but the internal struggles that have long given the state its form: class struggle perhaps being the central engine and all the struggles that in itself contains. Resource management and trade won’t stop with patchwork. Nor will aid. Again, this is the point I try to make clear. It’s not a turning our backs on each other but necessitates communication in order to function. It necessitates a responsibility to your outside and I think that means that situations like Syria would be less of a shitshow with states providing aid only doing so much and having their own imperial agendas. The only fiction I see is, again, people’s reliance on a capitalist realist fallacy when any alternative is put forward is wishful thinking. This post does not describe a fully functioning global system for fixing all our problems so dismissing it as not fulfilling that is stamping on it before its had time to grow legs — precisely the sort of knee jerk melancholic response that has rid the left of all altervatives. This is merely, for me, an introduction to the problem and there is more to come. And I want to show, over the course of a number of posts, how it’s an idea the Left could take seriously if it wanted to.

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