Although today it is synonymous with a smattering of Alt-Right edgelords, like so many words and symbols deployed by the far-right, the history of the “Dark Enlightenment” runs far deeper than its recent bastardisations suggest.
The original “Dark Enlightenment” was arguably begun by the post-Kantians, before going mainstream with Freud’s popularisation of the concept of the Unconscious. It is a phrase that has been used frequently (at least recently) to point to the ways in which Freud inaugurated the latest in a line of Great Humiliations of the human race that fundamentally changed how we see ourselves. Following Copernicus’ hard-to-swallow truth that we are not at the centre of the universe and James Hutton’s revelation that the Earth’s crust contains evidence of a geological time that dwarves our short existence, Freud took us down a further peg by letting us know that we are at the mercy of our own minds. We do not control our thoughts, they control us and, as it turns out, we are very easily manipulated.
A quick Google is all it takes to find evidence of Freud’s relevance to the original Dark Enlightenment in this regard. Take, for instance, this old review of two fantastic books on Freud in The Guardian that describes him
as a thinker of the dark enlightenment, “a deeper, conflicted, disconsolate, and even tragic yet still emancipatory tradition within the broader movement of the enlightenment”. Freud understood the forces of the counter-enlightenment, the pull of the irrational, the sway of belief, and integrated all this into his vision.
Elsewhere, Élisabeth Roudinesco has also described Freud as an explicit thinker of the Dark Enlightenment “who, while he believed firmly in reason and human progress, was at the same time — by a dialectical twist that was fundamental to his thinking — critical of the delusions of progress and reason.”
Roudinesco explicitly roots her use of the term in Adorno, who spoke of this darkness repeatedly, alongside Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment. They describe a darkness that is the antithesis of enlightenment — but only in the sense that it is nonetheless a part of the Enlightenment process, which is to say it remains present in the resulting synthesis of reason and unreason that the Enlightenment as an amorphous movement produced.
As Roudinesco explains, Adorno and Horkheimer refer to a “dark enlightenment” in order to critique “the excesses that derive from a belief in happiness and progress which nonetheless does not repudiate the spirit of the Enlightenment.” It is a darkness inherent to the Enlightenment because, metaphorically speaking, there must be light for there to be dark and dark for there to be light. This isn’t some Star Wars moralist bullshit, however — it is a feedback loop that we are too often blind to in our pretensions.
Adorno and Horkheimer present this argument in quite stark terms in their book’s introduction, almost ridiculing the “dutiful child of modern civilisation” who is “possessed by a fear of departing from the facts which, in the very act of perception, the dominant conventions of science, commerce, and politics — cliché-like — have already moulded; his anxiety is none other than the fear of social deviation.”
It is here that Freud returns to relevance as the Great Detective of an Unconscious that fascinated him for its seemingly contradictory processes. With this in mind, Adorno and Horkheimer are essentially describing a new superego born of the Enlightenment and they point with an impotent fury at the world around them, enslaved to an id that we do not see. They continue:
The same conventions [of social propriety and moral anxiety] define the notion of linguistic and conceptual clarity which the art, literature and philosophy of the present have to satisfy. Since that notion declares any negative treatment of the facts or of the dominant forms of thought to be obscurantist formalism or — preferably — alien, and therefore taboo, it condemns the spirit to increasing darkness. It is characteristic of the sickness that even the best-intentioned reformer who uses an impoverished and debased language to recommend renewal, by his adoption of the insidious mode of categorization and the bad philosophy it conceals, strengthens the very power of the established order he is trying to break.
Sidenote: this “adoption of insidious … categorization and the bad philosophy it conceals” is a better way of articulating the central charge of this recent post.
It is also the crux of Adorno and Horkheimer’s assessment of fascism and Nazism, later discussed at length in the book.
What they present as a sociopolitical dialectic may be more recognisable today as a positive feedback loop, taking into account the full complexity of the issues with which they are wrestling. They theorise that the Nazis, in their embrace of the latest technologies of the day — and, indeed, their fuelling of their own technological progression for the sake of the war effort — end up perpetuating the very barbarism they wish to keep out of their promised Reich and its pure Aryan race. This is to say that, in their efforts towards the fascistic purity of the Enlightenment project for the German people in the 20th century, they exacerbate within themselves the dark qualities that they otherwise see all around them in the non-German Other.
It is interesting that this same perception of the political disasters of the early 20th century finds itself at the heart of Nick Land’s late-20th century thought as well. In his essay, “Making It With Death”, for instance, he foreshadows his present tendency to present philosophical arguments in their most politically outrageous forms whilst also echoing Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of post-Enlightenment fascism. He writes:
Trying not to be a Nazi approximates one to Nazism far more radically than any irresponsible impatience in destratification. Nazism might even be characterised as the pure politics of effort; the absolute domination of the collective super-ego in its annihilating rigour. Nothing could be more politically disastrous than the launching of a moral case against Nazism: Nazism is morality itself, heir to Europe’s respectible history: that of witch-burnings, inquisitions, and pogroms. To want to be in the right is the common substratum of morality and genocidal reaction; the same desire for repression — organized in terms of the disapproving gaze of the father — that Anti-Oedipus analyzes with such power. Who could imagine Nazism without daddy? And who could imagine daddy being pre-figured in the energetic unconscious?
Land’s later series of blogposts known for re-popularising the phrase “The Dark Enlightenment” have gone some way towards extending this argument into our unruly present. However, in many ways, the above passage has not aged well, at a time when Neo-Nazism is legitimately on the rise and the Alt-Right largely embraces its association with that most despised of political philosophies because, as they often imply, the prevailing moralism of the left has somehow reduced the political stakes of Nazism to provocative cosplay. (Seemingly to Land’s glee, through which he sees to somehow laugh at and with the right simultaneously — plenty of us do this from the left I suppose.)
Here the Dark Enlightenment is reduced to something else all together. Land’s online acolytes seem to try and invert this logic by siding (even half-heartedly) with Nazism in order to therefore be wrong. This is apparently a logical way of sidestepping the moralist left’s fascistic desire to always be right. We see the left’s political melancholia face off against the right’s political sadomasochism in a way that may start off as play but soon becomes real as it finds itself on a vector towards the outside of an overbearing sociopolitical hegemony, reaching the outside of present moralities far more quickly and radically than the modern left could ever wish to.
And yet, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dark Enlightenment nonetheless resonates profoundly with Land’s own. What the former describe in their text is not unlike what the latter has termed a “neoreactionary” position that affirms a social tendency towards a kind of “highly-advanced drastic regression” — that is, as previously described, society’s tendency towards unleashing its own barbarism through its commitment to its own progression. Land, initially, recognised the ways in which this tendency cannot be thwarted through wishful thinking alone and even notes that it has its benefits for resisting the worst mechanisms of political cooption. However, today, rather than these technologies being unleashed in the explicit aid of the war effort, they are unleashed in favour of capitalism above all else.
Land’s work, at its most controversial, is an affirmation of this position on the very edge of the present. Capitalism itself is here representative of what Freud called the “primary process”. To borrow from the Encyclopedia Brittanica (for convenience):
Freud argued that there are two fundamental forms of thought: primary and secondary process. Primary process thought is governed by the pleasure principle, whereby id-driven instinctual desires seek fulfilment without consideration of the constraints of the external world. Magical thinking — the belief that wishes can impose their own order on the material world — is a form of primary process thought. Secondary process, in contrast, is a more advanced development, resulting from the emergence of the ego, which provides rational assessments under the direction of the reality principle that allow for adaptive responses to the environment. Freud used this model of individual development to explain the stages of cultural development proposed by anthropologists. That is, Freud posited that the development of the individual — from the id impulses and magical thought of childhood to the ego constraints and rationality of adulthood — mirrored the development of human cultures from magical-religious to rational-scientific.
Land’s position largely echoes this connection that Freud explored between the unconscious of the individual subject and the development of human cultures as a whole. More often than not, his writings are grounded on an affirmation of the very existence of this interscalar process, and it is this that has become associated with accelerationism — a philosophy grounded upon observations of technological progress and how this process affects the human subject over and within time.
The left / right political wings of accelerationism reduce this overarching observation to their own biased modes of “magical thinking”, confusing primary and secondary processes and placing a superego in the slot of the machine where the id usually lives, all whilst forgetting the central observation of the process’s existence whilst also trying to embodied and privilege a certain trajectory of the positive feedback loop over another. It’s all very confused.
Ironically, this tendency to arrogantly ignore the humiliation that accelerationism hopes to articulate — we are fuel for an impersonal economic machine that controls us far more effectively than we control it; or as Land put it: “Can what is playing you make it to level two?” — is itself symptomatic of the process. These responses only serve to legitimise the original psychogeological observations of capitalism’s affects on political reasoning.
Considering left-accelerationism as a particular example of how not to respond to this humiliation: the largely dead sub-movement was initially constituted by an affirmation of the antithetical aspects of capitalism that it cannot help but produce for itself, within its positive feedback loop. (There’s potential to confuse metaphors here — hence “antithetical aspects” rather than “antithesis” — but positive feedback loop is preferable over a dialectic framework because it emphasises the complex nature of the system rather than reducing it to any vague Hegelianism, which is part of the problem with both left and right responses.) Unfortunately, this was later reduced to a popular delusion that the affirmation of this side of the process will help influence the form of a later version of the system itself somehow… It won’t. Acknowledging there are contradictions is not the same as thinking something can die from them — as the early self-defined accelerationists of the 2010s hoped to make clear, nothing has ever died by its contradictions.
Accelerationism obviously raises many questions — and any ridiculing of the left and right varieties does not deny us the opportunity (in my view) of approaching accelerationism with some sort of anethics in mind — but these questions should not distract us from accelerationism’s addition to the Dark Enlightenment (understood in its original sense).
Accelerationism collapses all three previous Great Humiliations onto the 21st century and its dominant economic system. Yes: We live in an indifferent universe wherein we are subject to the whims of nature and its (our) Unconscious that is riven with traumas of a geological nature. Following the work of the Ccru, capitalism emerges as an interscalar vehicle that explicitly connects each humiliation to the others, entangling the human Unconscious with a planetary Unconscious, once again making impersonal the flows that govern us, both within and without us. Capitalism is how we presently understand and have systematised and essentialised this process but it is simply the part of the process that we are most familiar with. (Note: it is only a sub-process within what Bataille called the “general economy”.)
Here we come back to a previous articulation of a more generalised feedback loop. If it is true that “facts do not care about your feelings”, it is equally true that “feelings don’t care about your facts”. (We discussed this last time.) Each is entangled with the other. This is, in part, I think, what Adorno and Horkheimer are attempting to point out. Facts and feelings constitute a dialectic of reason — facts are emboldened by structures of reason as much as reason emboldens the social legitimacy of feelings.
What Adorno and Horkheimer seek to do, as so many did in the 20th century following the end of the Second World War, is illuminate not the “darkness” of this equation, per se, but the blind spots within our own theories of progress and justice that we associate with our heightened view of ourselves. They argue for this not to plunge ourselves into a state of moral or political indeterminacy but so as to make us aware of the flaws in ourselves so nothing like the Holocaust and Germany’s rampant nationalism can ever take place again.
The hardest lesson to come from this was that the German people were not unique in their susceptibility to fascism. It is within us all, this “banality of evil”, as Hannah Arendt called it. This was the Dark Enlightenment at the heart of the 20th century — the hard pill to be swallowed if we are to truly accept that there are still things within ourselves that we do not understand and that science has not sufficiently illuminated. In some instances, it is necessary for us to realise that science has even been a vector for channeling our worse impulses. We must be vigilant about what we deem to be “progressive” and what arms of knowledge we think will lead us there.
The right’s embracement of this moral vigilance (framed immorally) is predictably manipulative, and their persistent affirmation of science’s harsh view of nature as more terrifying and unforgiving than our humanisms can compute sets the left on edge and exacerbates its oppositional moralism. By monopolising this view of the universe, the right leave the left to embrace their own ignorance. Instead, the left should embrace the dark enlightenment for itself and recognise the ways in which the right are pushing the left towards a political dark ages.
As ever, the tools for defeating the mindnumbing confusion of the right are to be found in the concepts they attempt to claim absolute possession of. They are no less at the mercy of these humiliations than we are, and they mustn’t be allow to forget it.
How does the notion of the dark enlightenment here related to what Zizek calls ‘perversity’? It seems like there’s good reason to use Zizek’s terminology to the extent that we can — if we want to be understood, the conventional meaning of ‘perversity’ is closer to Zizek’s specialized meaning & hasn’t been associated with fringe political movements we are wary of seeming inviting to!
Regarding Land’s paragraph above about morality — maybe it’s the lack of context, but he comes off as remarkably naive here. It’s true that there’s a kind of moral*ism* that plays a big part in ideologies of extermination and purity, but it’s the moralism of fools (the same way that antisemitism is ‘the socialism of fools’): it incorrectly attributes problems related to extremely abstract society-wide concerns onto a concrete domain of individuals and easily-measurable attributes, takes a naively overconfident and straightforward track toward ‘fixing’ those problems by eliminating those easily-measured attributes, and isn’t open to understanding complications of its original assumptions about the source of potentially-real problems.
(The left has its own version of this, as Natalie Wynn recently pointed out: deplatforming requires a lot of people to work together, and the effort to organize deplatforming may not involve vetting the reasons for the effort, so it’s easy for abstract concerns to grow into more concrete phantom concerns and concrete concerns to billow into abstraction through a game of telephone. Unless we’re more careful to vet this stuff ourselves & plan our tactics, we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to manipulation by provacateurs and the merely emotionally unstable into exiling allies and reproducing fragmentation. Being careful & doing a lot of thinking & planning takes energy that many of us don’t have, & maybe in the absence of mechanisms to lower the workload of vetting this stuff we should err on the side of caution regarding such campaigns.)
Morality is valuable even if moralism is not, & it’s not hard to find philosophy that gives better guides to appropriate behavior than ‘watch thou for the mutant’ / ‘burn the witch’. Having a man’s-eye-view rather than a god’s-eye-view is vital here, but distinguishing between the two seems to be a part of human psychological development that a lot of adults somehow miss!
I remember having a brief discussion about perversity a while back on Twitter… I think I used it in its plain old derogatory sense and someone challenged it by saying they proudly identified as a “pervert” in much the same way people self-identify as “queer” or “freaks” or whatever. That being said, I’m not so familiar with how Zizek uses it but I’ll look into it!
There’s also a fair amount of context missing from the Land quote, admittedly. He selects Nazism and fascism as conglomerated political proponents of civilization’s death drive, grounding it explicitly in a Freudian understanding of cultural fissures. It’s similar, in part, to what he and Mark Fisher have said about ISIS here: https://www.urbanomic.com/document/sore-losers/ And here: https://www.urbanomic.com/document/cybergothic-vs-steampunk-response-to-badiou/ ISIS are not radical Others but the negative side of a global dynamic.
You’re right that this looks like a generalisation of “extremely abstract society-wide concerns” and that’s the danger of talking about this. I’m speaking generally but don’t mean to generalise — hence the emphasis on “positive feedback loop” as a process of a complex system rather than a dialectic. I think Land’s primary strength is he attempts to rigorously approach a lot of these concerns in ways that account for their complexity — and this leads to a messy picture, often articulated like a disgruntled statistician — that the left finds really repulsive (because it is but I think to an extent that is unavoidable given the approach.)
Also, regarding the usefulness of morality, I’m somewhat inclined to disagree. I don’t see morality as a series of choices but, in a Nietzschean sense, an unwritten but nonetheless imposed societal structure. I’m absolutely interested in ethics — and what Paul Mann has called “anethics” — but I would argue that is wholly distinct from morality in terms of willed behaviour and agentic praxis. However, I think that is also what you’re getting at here so maybe this is nothing more than a semantic point.
Honestly, regarding morals vs ethics, I’m not actually well versed enough in theory to have a clear handle on the distinction so I’m probably just screwing this up! I’m seeing this stuff in terms of heuristics about how to make individual behavior scale up to a functional society, which I think is very important, & Land may be making the same distinction between ethics & morality that I’m trying to make between morality & moralism.
Land writes in such a way that he sort of invites misreadings (much like Zizek, but to a more extreme extent). This doesn’t make him wrong, but it makes it easy for motivated people to demonize him — if a reader only really understands every third reference (as even a very well-read person might), the messiness of the picture being painted means that it’s easy to interpret him as being in favor of things he’s actually ambivalent about. If his goal is to be understood (even by peers) there would be a tactical advantage to protesting a bit more.
(Disgruntled statistician language is certainly not repulsive to the postrat-adjacent left, but maybe crossing the streams between marxist language, disgruntled statistician language, and modern theory language turns people off — relatively few people are comfortable with all three of these.)
“With staggering diligence, they had taken these works — which they ironically treated as the last word in modern thought — and synthesized from them, and from their own bitter experiences, the first socialist philosophy based on totally pessimistic and cynical conclusions about human nature. Life is a process of breaking down and using other matter, and if need be, other life. Therefore, life is aggression, and successful life is successful aggression. Life is the scum of matter, and people are the scum of life. There is nothing but matter, forces, space and time, which together make power. Nothing matters, except what matters to you. Might makes right, and power makes freedom. You are free to do whatever is in your power, and if you want to survive and thrive you had better do whatever is in your interests. If your interests conflict with those of others, let the others pit their power against yours, everyone for theirselves. If your interests coincide with those of others, let them work together with you, and against the rest. We are what we eat, and we eat everything. All that you really value, and the goodness and truth and beauty of life, have their roots in this apparently barren soil. This is the true knowledge. We had founded our idealism on the most nihilistic implications of science, our socialism on crass self-interest, our peace on our capacity for mutual destruction, and our liberty on determinism. We had replaced morality with convention, bravery with safety, frugality with plenty, philosophy with science, stoicism with anaesthetics and piety with immortality. The universal acid of the true knowledge had burned away a world of words, and exposed a universe of things. Things we could use.”
A few years ago I characterised late-Land as playing a game of “worst possible thing happens” – les choses sont contre nous, the universe is not merely indifferent but actively cruel, racist pseudoscience and a clash-of-civilisations view of geopolitics are to a first approximation actually true, and so on. The game being to try to think one’s way to interestingly counter-intuitive outcomes from the most unpromising premises. I now think this was giving him more credit than he deserves, to be honest – I think there’s a core of vulgar racism in Land which just is what it is, irrespective of the intellectual scaffolding around it, and you can see this in his evident admiration for malignant characters like Steve Sailer – there’s something there besides using such figures as tokens in a complex series of intellectual manoeuvres, and I’m always astonished when people insist on remaining within the web of apologetics, maybe adding a strand or two of their own, and refuse to acknowledge what it’s apologetics *for*. But that’s an argument for another day. I think Ken Macleod’s fiction of the “True Knowledge”, as described above, is a much stronger starting point for an unromantic leftism which fully accepts the necessity of hell-engineering as the only way to accomplish any worthwhile goal.
The other fictional antecedent here, which I don’t often see mentioned, is Neal Stephenson – the opening of Cryptonomicon makes it very plain:
“Let’s set the existence-of-God issue aside for a later volume, and just stipulate that in some way, self replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other, either by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves, or by more direct means which hardly need to be belabored.
Most of them failed, and their genetic legacy was erased from the universe forever, but a few found some way to survive and to propagate. After about three billion years of this sometimes zany, frequently tedious fugue of carnality and carnage, Godfrey Waterhouse IV was born, in Murdo, South Dakota, to Blanche, the wife of a Congregational preacher named Bunyan Waterhouse. Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo-which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time.
Everyone and everything that wasn’t a stupendous badass was dead…”
On morality/ethics, I have a feeling it’s one of those nonce distinctions like pornography/erotica, or the subject of one of those irregular verbs: I am rigorously ethical, you have strong principles, he/she/it is a pearl-clutching moralist. There are various ways you can slice it, and using “morality” for a largely implicit (and implicitly arbitrary) tangle of social judgements, and “ethics” for something more explicitly worked-out, and subject to justification (be it rational, aesthetic, or whatever) rather than underwritten by sacred authority, is a fairly common way to do it. But most ethical reasoning either terminates in the mulch of morality or spirals away into unworkable abstraction; the movement towards making commitments explicit and revisable is important, but what one is doing there is (I think) elucidating morality, not establishing an entirely different sort of basis for judgement and action.
“Left-moralism” is usually amygdala-based moral reasoning on the basis of pure/unclean distinctions, and anti-moralist positions are usually about trying to acknowledge an “intelligence of evil” (as Baudrillard puts it): people, situations and events are often “messy” rather than clear-cut, and we need to think carefully through the tangles rather than resort to thought-terminating clichés. This is often a useful impulse, but there is also an intelligence in the amygdala, in the fight-or-flight response to something that makes the hair stand on end. The moralist’s “ugh” at the sexual predator stalking around leftist organising circles, for example, is a valid and useful defensive signal. Whatever the complexity of the situations that person creates around themselves, they’re ultimately using “messiness” to obfuscate fairly basic power moves that they simply shouldn’t be allowed to carry on pulling. (One of the interesting contradictions running through the Vampire’s Castle essay is that it both makes a plea for complexity, and observes how a bourgeois fetish for complexity obscures sometimes quite black-and-white questions of social power, especially around class; it is itself an expression of a fairly heartfelt “ugh”, albeit with an analysis attached).