Mechanism and Vitalism in ‘Flatline Constructs’

I got a big fat juicy question on CuriousCat recently which I don’t think I could even dream of answering in the little box over there. It needed drafting elsewhere and so it might as well be a post.

Anon asked:

Could you please explain the distinction between mechanism and vitalism? Why is it so important for Gothic Materialism as defined by Fisher in his PhD?

If you’re not familiar with Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction — to give it its full title — and want an quick and dirty introduction, I wrote a 300-word intro for the Fisher-Function last year.

To quote myself in summary, Mark’s thesis

explores a radical plane of immanence — the Gothic flatline — on which the anthropocentric tendency to give agency to inanimate objects is subverted, so that everything — animate or inanimate — is seen as ‘dead’. Rather than privileging human agency over the agency of objects, Mark argues for their radical immanence within the emerging technosphere: the world of cybernetics. He asks, “what if we are as ‘dead’ as the machines”?

What is key for Fisher here, and what he is hoping to exacerbate at every level, is the way that burgeoning technologies are usurping the human tendency towards anthropocentrism in understanding the nature of experience under capitalism.

To fully understand the time we’re in and its potentials, we have to stop using ourselves as some kind of gold standard of experience. “Human life” is not an adequate paradigm for understanding life-in-itself. Superficially understood, we can argue that by viewing human “life” as a sort of minority experience, in the grand scheme of agentic things, we can far more easily think this plane of immanence, this Gothic Flatline, and therefore challenge and update (read: utterly annihilate) contemporary subjectivity accordingly.

We are becoming more and more open to this suggestion now, due to its implications for contemporary science fact, but it has also long been a consideration for the preparatory prescience of science fiction and philosophy. Truth be told, it’s an argument that is centuries old, and what Fisher has provided us with here — along with Nick Land and the Ccru more generally — is this same argument with a necessarily cybernetic update.

Fisher’s questioning of whether we are all “as ‘dead’ as the machines” does sound very cybergothic but, really, it’s just Materialism 101 — the fundamental suggestion of which is that all of existence can be understood in its relation to “matter”. The consistent issue with materialism, however, is that we struggle to concretely define what “matter” even is, but it seems that, for Fisher, this quest for definition is to miss the point somewhat.

Fisher’s materialism is that of Spinoza’s “God, Nature”, of Nietzsche’s suggestion that “living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type”, of Deleuze’s “transcendental field” — each a way of thinking immanence and de-privileging the human subject in thought.

Mechanism and vitalism come into play here as two major splinterings within classical materialism. Vitalism is perhaps the better known of the two, regularly thrown about in orbit of Deleuze albeit becoming a somewhat empty word these days. Prior to Deleuze it has been more generally understood as a way of distinguishing life from death — philosophically, life is recognisable to us through a sort of will-to-power, a non-physical “life force”, a soul, a spirit, an intelligence, a consciousness, et al., which something that is dead fundamentally does not have. Each of these examples is vastly different to every other, of course, suggesting that this horizon is no longer so absolute, and bringing to mind a whole plethora of references and interpretations, which perhaps gives us an idea of just how broad vitalist thinking is. In the most general terms, perhaps you can argue that it is a question of biology, as yet philosophically unaccounted for. It is life understood as matter with “agency”.

Mechanism, on the other hand, can be understood more as a question of physics — as the suggestion that life is governed by Newtonian sensibilities of causality and motion; by quantifiable, physical processes.

Whilst Deleuze is so often discussed as a vitalist, in truth his position is more of a diagonal between the two positions, due to the ways that his vitalism includes talk of machines and assemblages, giving it a certain kind of mechanistic bent. In many ways, both of these terms become redundant in the face of his thinking. Deleuze’s thought is instead an immanentization of the two.

Fisher argues for this conflation throughout his thesis, introducing the problem right from the start within his thesis’s introduction. He writes:

Donna Haraway’s celebrated observation that “our machines are disturbingly lively, while we ourselves are frighteningly inert” has given this issue a certain currency in contemporary cyber-theory. But what is interesting about Haraway’s remark — its challenge to the oppositional thinking that sets up free will against determinism, vitalism against mechanism — has seldom been processed by a mode of theorizing which has tended to reproduce exactly the same oppositions. These theoretical failings, it will be argued here, arise from a resistance to pursuing cybernetics to its limits (a failure evinced as much by cyberneticists as by cultural theorists, it must be added). Unraveling the implications of cybernetics, it will be claimed, takes us out to the Gothic flatline. The Gothic flatline designates a zone of radical immanence. And to theorize this flatline demands a new approach, one committed to the theorization of immanence. This thesis calls that approach Gothic Materialism.

The conjoining of the Gothic with Materialism poses a challenge to the way that the Gothic has been thought. It is a deliberate attempt to disassociate the Gothic from everything supernatural, ethereal or otherwordly. The principal inspiration for this theorization comes from Wilhelm Worringer via Deleuze-Guattari. Both Worringer and Deleuze-Guattari identity the Gothic with “nonorganic life”, and whilst this is an equation we shall have cause to query, Gothic Materialism as it is presented here will be fundamentally concerned with a plane that cuts across the distinction between living and nonliving, animate and inanimate. It is this anorganic continuum, it will be maintained, that is the province of the Gothic.

This anorganic continuum is precisely the diagonal that cuts across mechanism and vitalism. As he writes later: “if everything can be explained mechanically, this entails less the triumph of mechanism as originally understood than the collapsing of the terms of the debate with vitalism.”

What makes this diagonal argument and the collapsing of mechanism into vitalism so necessary, for Fisher, via Deleuze and Guattari, is desire. Fisher writes:

For Deleuze-Guattari, what needs to be accounted for in both vitalism and mechanism — but what both have tended to leave out — is the immanence of desire to all assemblages. Unlike [Samuel] Butler, both mechanism and vitalism leave desire in an “extrinsic” relationship, either to machines in the case of mechanism, or to organisms in the case of vitalism. “This is even the point around which the usual polemic between vitalism and mechanism revolves: the machine’s ability to account for the workings of the organism, but its fundamental inability to account for its formations.” The organism’s functioning, that is to say, can be described merely mechanically, but mechanism cannot account for its own production, just as the existence of machines is — supposedly — dependent upon the “vitalistic” role of human beings. For Deleuze-Guattari, what mechanism and vitalism both posit is a different kind of unity or reification: mechanism posits a “structural unity” of machines, whereas vitalism posits an “individual and specific unity of the living.” Neither account for the multiplicity of relations into which machines and “the living” enter, and from which they are constituted; and in each case, desire is construed as something “secondary and indirect.”

Mark later frames this problematic in the form of that old surrealist brainteaser: “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” To back either mechanism or vitalism in the age of cybernetics is precisely to back the chicken or the egg and to miss the necessary paradoxical engine which keeps things moving.

As such, the answer to this problem for Fisher is clear, if no less mind-mangling: the circuit itself comes first. The (desiring-)production of chicken-as-egg-as-chicken-… is the perfect expression of immanence but there are nonetheless distinctions to be made here…

So why are mechanism and vitalism so important to Gothic Materialism? Because they constitute the very engine on which Mark’s thesis is built, but there remains a lot more left to be said here.

I’m sort of ending here at the point where things get really juicy. This is where the key to Fisher’s Deleuzian cybernetic materialism reveals itself, but I must confess that I am reluctant to go any further in answering this question because this is something that I’m actively researching at the moment and am still trying to properly grasp — hoping to entangle it with a few other things, very slowly, here and here — not in terms of Mark’s thought exclusively but rather trying to understand the continuously contemporary implications of Deleuze’s philosophy of difference.

The importance of this to Flatline Constructs is obvious, I think, if somewhat obfuscated by Mark’s cybernetic language. This is something revealed not so much in the text itself but in the title of the chapter in which mechanism and vitalism are primarily discussed. This third chapter is titled “Xerox and Xenogenesis”, and it seems like this is Fisher’s version of that old Deleuze joke, updated for Y2k.

Deleuze once said that he titled his PhD thesis Difference & Repetition because Being & Time was already taken. There is surely no better way of understanding the wordplay presented here in Flatline Constructs as pointing to a relationship between xerox as repetition as time and xenogenesis as difference as being, expanded outwards into Fisher’s Gothic Materialism.

Deleuze’s philosophy of difference, as presented in Difference & Repetition, is itself an expression of a kind of immanent materialism. This thought is then later found again in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, this time as an explicitly politicised philosophy of difference.

Mark condenses this thought wonderfully and dizzyingly in a polemically kpunk-esque and pointedly Landian essay which appeared in Warwick’s Pli journal:

With Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Freud, and all the other key breakouts from western philosophy, Marx advances a materialism based on two fundamental principles:

(1) There is only one type of stuff in the cosmos. Every kind of dualism and all appeals to the supersensible or the supernatural are illegitimate. The positing of such realms is a Master simulation, a way of both denying the Masters’ own constitution as material entities whilst also concealing their dependence upon a social system that is based upon structural inequality.

(2) There is only one practice. Since, for Marx, all activity is practice, the important distinction is between (i) materialist theoretical practice, which emerges from and is oriented towards action, and (ii) idealist theoretical practice, which, in the name of universality, objectivity or disinterested contemplation, disavows its own role in expressing — and thereby shoring up — the formations of power from which it emerges.

Power, economics, matter: all become shadows projected from/onto the gloomy interior of the Subject. On the other (Out)side — the unscreened Real, or matter-in-itself — everything is desire, everything is production, and all theory is practice, even when it functions as anti­ productive static which blocks, dams up, and drains intensity. Deleuze credits Nietzsche with being the one who introduces the question, ‘who is speaking?’ into ‘philosophy’ but Marx had already encouraged us to distrust all claims to transcendence and universality and ask instead what mode of power was speaking in their name. All ‘discourse’ is in some sense practical. Yes, even the apparently irrelevant noodlings of our latter day phenomenologists have a role to play in maintaining social order (if only by gumming up the machines with sickly babble).

Deleuze-Guattari’s ‘transcendental materialism’ is a fissile recombination of Marx and Kant, whose function is to provide the abstract engineering hyper-program for the dismantling of human security (= you, insofar as you are personal, identical, organismic). Gothic or transcendental materialism (= schizoanalysis = pop philosophy rhizomatics = stratoamlysis = pragmatics micropolitcs) deploys the Kantian critical machine to interrogate what remains uncritiqued in Marx (the reification of already-constituted actualities like ‘the social’) whilst using Marx to re-insert Kant’s subject into the hypermaterialist field of Kapital.

If that is hard to make sense of, don’t worry about it. For Fisher, then and now, I feel like this philosophy of difference continues to run in the background of his thought, albeit later rephrased and re-un-articulated again and again. It is, so concludes this essay, a way to “let the Outside in” and the implications of us remain poignant for us all.

I wrote in conclusion of my introduction to the thesis:

In his eulogy to Mark, Robin Mackay wondered “what remains after the physical body’s gone, when the singularity of a life can no longer rely on that frail support and needs other carriers”. With this in mind, what role does this Gothic Materialism play within the Fisher-Function? Rather than becoming immediately facetious, can Mark’s real death recalibrate the stakes of his conceptual deaths? Can death in this mode be collectively thought in a way that prepares us for — and helps us to move beyond — our present reality, not only of personal grief but of capitalist apocalypticism?

… and I feel like the potentials for answering these questions were always there. They weren’t activated by Mark’s death — that event simply made the desire for answers all the more furious. These questions continue to run throughout Mark’s work, smuggling the immanentisation of Deleuze-Guattari into his own pop philosophy rhizomatics. There’s a lot of work left to do…

Hopefully I’ll get round to contributing something more concrete and rigorous to this soon…


  1. The “immanentization of the two” might be a good way to approach discussions around non-duality, while “the circuit itself comes first” is very close to the primacy of causality itself (pratītyasamutpāda), while the Outside remains an approximation or deviation from emptiness. While I’ve killed the Xenobuddhist persona, I still think this cybergothic materialism remains in philosophical proximity to Buddhism but pulled towards the nihilistic end of the scale of errors (between nihilism and eternalism) – whether in aesthetic, in philosophical content, or both. To me the chicken and egg question hasn’t got a ready answer and any solution to the problem entirely misses the point. The logic of cybernetics is already the paradoxical implosion of logic, the ko’an.

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