This is an extract from the introduction of Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy Vol 2 by Eugene Thacker. It is the second part of a 3-book series, which began with In the Dust of This Planet (Zer0, 2011) and will continue with Tentacles Longer Than Night.
Vol 2 & 3 will both be published by Zer0 on 24th April 2015 – TS
Descartes’ Demon. Sometime around 1639, René Descartes sat down at his desk to write. At issue for him was a simple question concerning knowledge. Philosophy, theology, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, the arts, and the natural sciences all claim to know things. From them a cumulative understanding of the self, of others, of the world, and of the cosmos is made possible. But how do we know that what we know is actually true? What is the foundation on which these disparate fields of knowledge are based? Are there questions that cannot – or should not – be asked, lest they undermine the knowledge they are designed to produce? How much uncertainty is tolerated before knowledge becomes doubt, and when does doubt come to a stop, if ever?
An abyss opens up. For Descartes this was a personal as well as a philosophical problem. As he writes, “Some years ago I noticed how many false things I had accepted as true in my childhood, and how doubtful were the things that I subsequently built on them and therefore that, once in a lifetime, everything should be completely overturned and I should begin again from the most basic foundations…”
Being the astute thinker that he was, Descartes set out a method for addressing this problem. The task was, as he notes, ambitious, and Descartes writes that he had been waiting for a “mature age” at which to undertake this project. Whether the age of forty-three was the right age or not is hard to say. He felt he had been waiting long enough, even too long, and so, Descartes writes, “today I appropriately cleared my mind of all cares and arranged for myself some time free from interruption. I am alone and, at long last, I will devote myself seriously and freely to this general overturning of my beliefs.”
The result of these exercises in skepticism are well known to students of philosophy, and, when The Meditations on First Philosophy were published in Paris in 1641, they immediately attracted a whole range of responses, not least of all from the ongoing debates over the relationship between philosophy and theology, reason and faith.
Descartes’ most lasting application of his methodological doubt comes in the first of his meditations, where he considers how our senses deceive us. Dreams, hallucinations, painting, and other examples are discussed as instances in which we think we know something based on sensory evidence, and are in fact deceived. But at least in these instances we can learn, from experience, to distinguish dream from reality, and the image from the thing itself. Our senses are reliable, if used properly.
But Descartes pushes his doubt even further. What if our senses are, by definition, deceptive? What if deception is, as it were, hard-wired into our very modes of being? Descartes raises this question through a kind of thought experiment:
Therefore, I will suppose that, not God who is the source of truth but some evil mind, who is all powerful and cunning, has devoted all their energies to deceiving me. I will imagine that the sky, air, earth, colours, shapes, sounds and everything external to me are nothing more than the creatures of dream by means of which an evil spirit entraps my credulity. I shall imagine myself as if I had no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, no senses at all, but as if my beliefs in all these things were false.3
Another abyss opens. Often dubbed the “evil demon” or “evil genius,” here we see Descartes pushing his doubt to an extreme point, a point at which no knowledge is possible because nothing is for certain. One thought is as good or as bad as another, every- thing relative, arbitrary, haphazard, pointless. Subject to continual deception, prey to the cunning of unknown entities, dismembered and insubstantial, Descartes has let himself to stand on the precipice of philosophy and peer over the edge. And what he finds there is a terrifying abyss, where there is neither certitude nor knowledge, nor even a single thought – just a tenebrous, impassive silence.
“But this is a tiring project and a kind of laziness brings me back to what is more habitual in my life.” Can we blame Descartes for stepping back from the precipice? Thinking is hard work, yes, but the negation of all thought is, perhaps, harder. What Descartes inadvertently discovers is at once the ground and the greatest threat to philosophy, the question that cannot be asked without undermining the idea of philosophy itself.
Traditionally, the Socratic tradition in philosophy has a thera- peutic function, which is to dispel the horrors of the unknown through reasoned argument. What cannot be tolerated in this tradition is the possibility of a world that cannot be known, or a world that is indifferent to our elaborate knowledge-producing schemes. Descartes’ Meditations begin – and end – in this mode. But along the way there are gaps, fissures, and lacunae in the philosophical edifice. With the evil demon Descartes stumbles upon a horror intrinsic to philosophy: the thought that philosophy cannot think without undermining and annulling itself. In order to continue its work, philosophy must ignore it, or gloss it over, or skip it altogether.
And so, in the following meditation, a foundation is provided by Descartes, in his famous formulation cogito ergo sum: “…let him deceive me as much as he wishes, he will never bring it about that I am nothing as long as I think I am something. Thus, having weighed up everything adequately, it must finally be state that this proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind.”4 From this flows an entire legacy of philosophical thinking, in terms of Cartesian space, Cartesian dualism, and the privileging of human consciousness over all other forms of being. But it is not so easy to shake Descartes’ demon, which continues to haunt his philosophical treatise to the end. It is always there, threatening to undermine whatever conceptual edifice Descartes has constructed. Better to not deal with it at all – and continue philosophizing. Descartes even confesses: “I am like a prisoner who happens to enjoy an imaginary freedom in his dreams and who subsequently begins to suspect that he is asleep and, afraid of being awakened, conspires silently with his agreeable illusions.”5
Kant’s Depression. On the 12th of February, 1804, Immanuel Kant lay on his deathbed. “His eye was rigid, and his face and lips became discoloured by a cadaverous pallor.”6 A few days following his death, his head was shaved, and “a plaster cast was taken, not a mask merely, but a cast of the whole head, designed to enrich the craniological collection of Dr. Gall,” a local physician. The corpse of Kant was made up and dressed appro- priately, and, according to some accounts, throngs of visitors came day and night. “Everybody was anxious to avail himself of the last opportunity he would have for entitling himself to say, ‘I too have seen Kant.’”7 Their impressions seemed to be at once reverent and grotesque. “Great was the astonishment of all people at the meagreness of Kant’s appearance; and it was universally agreed that a corpse so wasted and fleshless had never been beheld.”8 Accompanied by the church bells of Königsberg, Kant’s corpse was carried from his home by torch- light, to a candle-lit cathedral, whose Gothic arches and spires were perhaps reminiscent of the philosopher’s elaborate, vaulted books.
In his book A Short History of Decay, E.M. Cioran once wrote: “I turned away from philosophy when it became impossible to discover in Kant any human weakness, any authentic accent of melancholy, in Kant and in all the philosophers.”9 Indeed, for many, the name of Immanuel Kant has become synonymous with a certain type of elaborate, grand, system-building philosophy that characterizes works such as The Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781. Indeed, so decisive was the impact of Kant’s later, “critical” philosophy that textbooks on the history of philosophy often refer to philosophy before Kant and “post- Kantian philosophy.” The significance of Kant’s philosophy is, however, counter-balanced by its notorious difficulty. Reading through the table of contents alone, with its dazzling and labyrinthine array of sections, sub-sections, and sub-sub- sections, is a task in and of itself. Nevertheless, if Kant’s philosophy achieved one thing, it was a renewed optimism in philosophy, much in line with Enlightenment ideals concerning the advantages of secular reason and the “maturing” of humanity as a whole. Reading through Kant’s works, with their patient and rigorous divisions and sub-divisions, there is a sense of philosophy as an all-encompassing, totalizing endeavor. Philosophy, in its Kantian modes, knows everything – it even knows what it doesn’t know.
That Kant suffered from depression may come as a surprise, especially given the ambition of his philosophical books and the enthusiasm of his wide-ranging intellectual interests (his lecture courses cover everything from philosophical logic to anthro- pology to chemistry to predictions about the end of the world). But in 1798, in a letter to a colleague on the topic of “the art of prolonging human life,” Kant commented on his own struggle with depression. The comments are rare for Kant, both in the sense of being personal and in the way they serve as a confession of weakness. In typical fashion, Kant first defines depression as “the weakness of abandoning oneself despondently to general morbid feelings that have no definite object (and so making no attempt to master them by reason).”10 A thought without an object is a troubling thing in Kant’s philosophy; it can lead to endless train of fickle thoughts without any ground, similar to the speculative debates in Kant’s time over the existence of God, the origin of the universe, or the existence of a soul. Reason becomes employed for no reason – or at least, for no good reason. At issue for Kant is not just the employment of reason over faith or imagination, but the instrumental use of reason – reason mastering itself, including its own limitations. This was as much the case for everyday thought as it was for philosophical thinking: “The opposite of the mind’s self-mastery… is faint- hearted brooding about the ills that could befall one, and that one would not be able to withstand if they should come.”11
And when the coherence of reason is threatened, so is philosophy. Or rather, so is the philosopher. A little later on, Kant offers this strange confession: “I myself have a natural dispo- sition to hypochrondria because of my flat and narrow chest, which leaves little room for the movement of the heart and lungs; and in my earlier years this disposition made me almost weary of life.”12
Elsewhere Kant drops hints of this depression. In the Critique of Judgement, for instance, he allows that “misanthropy” is preferable, and even has the character of the sublime: “Falsehood, ingratitude, injustice, the puerility of the ends which we ourselves look upon as great and momentous… these all so contradict the idea of what men might be if they only would, and are so at variance with our active wish to see them better, that, to avoid hating where one cannot love, it seems but a slight sacrifice to forego all the joys of fellowship with our kind.”13
But Kant does not give in so easily to this “pathology” of thought. Philosophy is the panacea. Kant distinguishes “philosophizing” from “philosophy,” though both play a therapeutic role in reason’s self-mastery. Philosophizing, for Kant, “does not involve being a philosopher,” but instead “is a means of warding off many disagreeable feelings and, besides, a stimulant to the mind that introduces an interest into its occupations.”14 At another level, there is “philosophy” proper, “whose interest is the entire final end of reason (an absolute unity),” and which “brings with it a feeling of power which can well compensate to some degree for the physical weaknesses of old age by a rational estimation of life’s value.”15
This is all fine, from the critical distance of philosophical self- mastery. But things get a little more complicated when Kant discusses depression (in the same essay he also discusses boredom, diet, and sleep). What Kant doesn’t consider is that reason might actually be connected to depression, rather than stand as its opposite. What if depression – reason’s failure to achieve self-mastery – is not the failure of reason but instead the result of reason? What if human reason works “too well,” and brings us to conclusions that are anathema to the existence of human beings? What we would have is a “cold rationalism,” shoring up the anthropocentric conceits of the philosophical endeavor, showing us an anonymous, faceless world impervious to our hopes and desires. And, in spite of Kant’s life-long dedication to philosophy and the Enlightenment project, in several of his writings he allows himself to give voice to this cold rationalism. In his essay on Leibniz’s optimism he questions the rationale of an all-knowing God that is at once beneficent towards humanity but also allows human beings to destroy each other.16 And in his essay “The End of All Things” Kant not only questions humanity’s dominion over the world, but he also questions our presumption to know that – and if – the world will end at all: “But why do human beings expect an end to the world at all? And if this is conceded to them, why must it be a terrible end?”17
The implication in these and other comments by Kant is that reason and the “rational estimation of life’s value” may not have our own best interests in mind, and the self-mastery of reason may not coincide with the self-mastery of us as human beings (or, indeed, of the species as a whole). Philosophical reason taken to these lengths would not only make philosophy improbable (for how could one have philosophy without philosophers?), but also impractical (and what would be the use of such a “depressive reason”?). What Kant refers to as depression is simply this stark realization: that thought is only incidentally human. It would take a later generation of philosophers to derive the conclusion of this: that thought thinks us, not the reverse.
Legend has it that Kant’s final word on his deathbed was “enough” (genug).18 The aged peripatetic philosopher of Köningsberg let out a word that was also a sigh, and depressive reason seems to have had the final say.19
Nietzsche’s Laughter. Nothing is more indicative of human culture than the obsessiveness with which it has depicted its own planet. When the Earth was decentered from the universe by Copernican astronomy, this was more than compensated for by the innumerable images of the Earth produced over the years by artists and scientists alike. The Earth was, and is, in many ways, still at the center of things. In this sense, the first televised images of the Earth can no doubt be regarded as the pinnacle of a species solipsism, one that has its underside in the many computerized film images of a disaster-worn, zombie-ridden, apocalyptic landscape. We are so fixated on the Earth – that is, on ourselves – that we would rather have a ruined Earth than no Earth at all.
Astronauts often refer to their first view of Earth as the “overview effect,” suggesting that the view of the Earth from space produces a shift in consciousness – that we as human beings are not separate from the planet on which we live. The general message is that of sublime wonder and unity: national boundaries disappear, and over its surface the planet reveals strange, luminous patterns of color, cloud, and light (otherwise known as cities, smog, and the electrical grid). Thanks to digital technology the overview effect can now be an everyday experience.
However, in its appeal for a planetary consciousness, the overview effect tends to reveal something different – the indifference of the planet vis-à-vis our repeated attempts to render it meaningful. It is in this context that one is reminded of Nietzsche’s oft-quoted passage from “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”:
In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history” – yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.20
Here Nietzsche gives us a different take on the “overview effect.” In this version, we have never been one with the planet, nor does the planet require our cleverness and technical ingenuity to save it – from ourselves. It is tempting to imagine Nietzsche himself as a present-day astronaut, going up into space, turning back and seeing the Earth, and noticing the contrast between the indif- ferent, glittering planet and the equal indifference of the busy and clever animals on its surface. No doubt Nietzsche’s ill-health would mean that he would fail to complete the astronaut training. And so he would settle for writing it down.
But Nietzsche’s capacity for undermining the human is perhaps needed now more than ever. On the one hand, we who are still on the Earth’s surface cannot escape an awareness of the impact of climate change, beset as we are by disasters that increasingly refuse the distinction between the natural and human-made. On the other hand, the process of recuperating the planet for us as human beings continues unabated. Whether we can “save” the planet is one question – whether the planet needs saving is another.
Nietzsche encapsulated this dilemma in the title of his third published book: Human, All Too Human, a book that captures the polyphony of voices in Nietzsche’s writing – by turns sarcastic, enthusiastic, naive, spiteful, meditative, joyful.21 For example, in the second volume of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche gives us yet another, much more sardonic variant on the overview effect:
There would have to be creatures of more spirit than human beings, simply in order to savor the humor that lies in humans seeing themselves as the purpose of the whole existing world and in humanity being seriously satisfied only with the prospect of a world-mission. If a god did create the world, he created humans as god’s apes, as a continual cause for amusement in his all-too-lengthy eternity… Our uniqueness in the world! alas, it is too improbable a thing! The astronomers, who sometimes really are granted a field of vision detached from the earth, intimate that the drop of life in the world is without significance for the total character of the immense ocean of becoming and passing away… The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the earth…22
As Nietzsche jibes, the strange endeavor of human thinking tends to eclipse the world, until we become so philosophically solip- sistic that even the non-human – by its very name – begins to look a lot like the human. Nietzsche caps off his rant with the following: “Even the most dispassionate astronomer can himself scarcely feel the earth without life in any other way than as the gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity.”23
But Nietzsche’s phrase Menschliches, Allzumenschliches has several meanings. Certainly it evokes a sense of disappointment – the “all too human” as less than human, as the failure to live up to the various standards, criteria, and values that we associate with being human. And, as Nietzsche repeatedly points out in his book, this itself has become a hallmark of the human. But the phrase also evokes a more critical sense of failing to challenge our most basic and habitual ways of thinking and living – including the questioning of those same criteria and values that demarcate the human from the non-human.
At the same time, Nietzsche’s invectives against humanity are outstripped only by his refusal to dispense with the term “human,” much less imagine a romantic, transcendent realm “beyond” the human – itself the height of humanist thinking. Nietzsche repeatedly affirms this notion of the human, all too human, even as he rails against it. Human beings are all too human not only because we fail to live up to the human – and what we assume it means to be human – but because we are merely human, only human, and in a way that refuses both the divine fiat of science as well as the natural history of religion’s chosen peoples. This is Nietzsche’s own, tragi-comic brand of humanism: that there is nothing special about the human.
When Nietzsche began writing Human, All Too Human around 1876, many changes were afoot – the thirty-two year old philol- ogist was forced to retire from his teaching post at the University of Basel due to a series of health issues, which included stomach problems, arthritis, migraines, nausea, vomiting, and rapidly deteriorating eyesight. He had also alienated himself from Wagner and his cultist circle, opting instead for the life of an itinerant scholar. Deciding to relocate to a better climate, he traveled to Sorrento, where he wrote the bulk of the first volume of Human, All Too Human. 1878 saw the publication of Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, comprising some 600 aphorisms. Of the 1000 copies printed, only 120 sold – the remaining volumes were subsequently rebound together with the second volume for the 1886 edition.24 The following year another four hundred aphorisms would be published with the title Assorted Opinions and Maxims, and the year after that, another 350 aphorisms with the title The Wanderer and His Shadow. Writing in Ecce Homo some twelve years after its initial publi- cation, Nietzsche would characterize the book as “the monument of a crisis” and a “spiritual cure.”
The change in lifestyle was echoed in Nietzsche’s writing style as well. While in Sorrento, Nietzsche began writing in the brief, aphoristic style that would characterize some of his best-known works. But Nietzsche’s aphorisms are not of a single mold, and his turn to the short form manifests itself in different ways, from mini-essays in the vein of Montaigne to taut maxims reminiscent of La Rochefoucauld. We also get dialogues, parables, poetry, even jokes. Indeed, Human, All Too Human not only reflects Nietzsche’s experiment with style, but with reading as well. One anecdote has Nietzsche reading La Rochefoucauld’s Sentences et maximes on the train to Sorrento, but Nietzsche himself gives the detective in us a number of clues: in addition to scholarly works on Greek tragedy and philology, Nietzsche is reading Chamfort, Lichtenberg, Montaigne, Pascal, Vauvenargues, Voltaire (the dedicatee of the first edition of Human, All Too Human), and of course Schopenhauer, ever Nietzsche’s “educator” and paragon of misanthropic aphorisms.
Human, All Too Human is a master class in fragmentary writing, an exegesis on the virtues of the “incomplete thought,” as prescient today in our era of the “overview effect” as it was in Nietzsche’s era of Darwinism, the Industrial Revolution, and Spiritualism. It is no accident that such experiments in the incom- plete thought take as their subject the problem of the human. Above all, the phrase “human, all too human” signals the beginning of a trajectory that would reach across all of Nietzsche’s writings, and would continue into the rediscovery of his work by generations of twentieth-century philosophers and theorists. The “overview effect” rendered as the “gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity.”
Were Nietzsche writing today, he might very well regard the flora and fauna of contemporary philosophy (posthuman, transhuman, inhuman, non-human, and so on) as so many varieties of this impulse to redeem the human, through the back door, the side door, a trap door… But Nietzsche himself was not immune to such impulses. For every misanthropic statement there is a statement of almost ecstatic, almost embarrassing affir- mation, and for every impulse to start a project there is the equal impulse to abandon it. An entry from Nietzsche’s notebook in the fall of 1878 simply reads: “A novel. A volume of poetry. A history. A philology.” An entry from the summer of 1879, perhaps during a bout of illness, reads: “All I lack is a homunculus.” Another note, from the fall of 1879, reads: “I am thinking of having a long sleep.” In his notebook, Nietzsche puts the phrase itself in quotes, but does not give a reference.
Horror of Philosophy. When Descartes stumbles across his demon, he discovers a thought that potentially undermines his entire philosophical project. A dilemma presents itself. If Descartes accepts the demon as actual, he has remained true to his method of skeptical doubt – but then his project is futile, since there is no ground for his thoughts, and nothing can be known for certain. If Descartes rejects the demon, either by ignoring it or by glossing it over, he can carry on with his philosophy, but he has effectively abandoned the original impetus behind his philosophizing to begin with. And so philosophy becomes a kind of pantomime, the passing of time, wasted energy. Either way, it seems that philosophy has to confront the real possibility of its futility – and the equal possibility that one will never know for sure whether philosophy has been futile or not. This is the crux of the “horror of philosophy,” which we see in
Descartes’ demon, Kant’s depression, and Nietzsche’s wrestling with an indifferent cosmos. Put simply, it is the thought that undermines itself, in thought. Thought that stumbles over itself, at the edge of an abyss. That moment when the philosopher stumbles upon (Descartes), or cannot avoid (Kant), or actively confronts (Nietzsche) the very thing that undermines their activity as philosophers. Being philosophers, they cannot simply switch tracks, and opt for poetry or mathematics. So they continue the labor of philosophy, all the while under the tenebrous, impersonal gaze of the horror of philosophy.
Far from dismissing philosophy, I would argue that this makes philosophy interesting. Particularly if one “mis-reads” philosophy in this way. If we were to adopt a method, it might be this: read works of philosophy as if they were works of horror. Of course, this is not to ignore the differences between, say, the narrative fiction of Poe or Lovecraft and the analytic, discursive language of Plato or Kant. But, at the same time, we know that many philosophers make use of literary elements (Plato’s dialogues being a prime example, not to mention Augustine’s use of autobiography and Kierkegaard’s use of the parable). And we know that many of the classics of the horror genre, from Poe to Lovecraft to the “new weird” in fiction, are largely idea-driven stories and make extensive use of the discursive mode in their narration or dialogue. One imagines Descartes, the accidental necromancer, making hesitant pacts with demons; one imagines Kant, swaying before the looming abyss of a gothic maelstrom; one imagines Nietzsche, reveling in the fin-de-siècle extinction of the species and the attendant exhaustion of vampiric thought.
The proposition that governs this book, Starry Speculative Corpse, is that something interesting happens when one takes philosophy not as a heroic feat of explaining everything, but as the confrontation with this thought that undermines thought, this philosophy of futility. Certainly, there is a bit of tongue-in- cheek in this method of reading philosophy as if it were horror; and, like all methods, it is not to be taken too seriously. But the focus in the sections that follow will be on those moments when philosophy reveals the thought that undermines it as philosophy, when the philosopher confronts this thought that cannot be thought.
Admittedly, the title of this series of books – Horror of Philosophy – is a bit odd; in one sense, it is something of a joke. Anyone who has, as a student, been forced to read a philosopher like Kant (or worse, Hegel), has no doubt felt a certain horror of philosophy. The sheer heft of a book like The Critique of Pure Reason is intimidating in and of itself, never mind the pages upon pages of jargon-filled divisions and sub-divisions that make a mockery of any notion of “plain language” or “common sense.” Much of philosophy today prides itself on instilling this intel- lectual horror in the reader – it is too serious to be taken lightly, too full of gravitas to joke about, replete with relevance, rigor, authority. But this is not just limited to the obscure corners of academic philosophy; our public intellectuals and pop philoso- phers also leverage this intimidation factor in the guise of the know-it-all, the self-help guru, the philosopher as the person authorized to say something about everything, obliging us to stroke our collective beards in rehearsed gestures of profundity. As a reader, my reaction is something out of a B-horror movie – I recoil in terror.
But if the phrase “horror of philosophy” is a joke, it is because it simply reverses the phrase “philosophy of horror,” thereby pointing to a basic assumption we have about philosophy itself.25 A “philosophy of horror” implies a relation between philosophy and its object. Specifically, that philosophy will either explain its object (whereas in itself it is confusing), give meaning to its object (whereas in itself it lacks meaning), or render its object clear, apparent, and transparent (whereas in itself it is opaque and hidden). This applies to any formula of the type “philosophy of X” where X is philosophy’s object, an object that stands apart from philosophy, and because of this, can be analyzed, unpacked, and dissected. Today we not only have the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of nature, the philosophy of mathematics, and political, ethical, and moral philosophy, but also the philosophy of cognition, the philosophy of technology – even the philosophy of… philosophy (that is, meta-philosophy).
Questions arise. Is philosophy’s object always separate from it? What happens when the critical distance of philosophy collapses? Does philosophy really have the ability to explain everything? Is philosophy’s specialization its universality? And if philosophy can’t explain everything, how would we know this, and what language would be appropriate for expressing it? At what point does a philosophy of futility become indistinguishable from the futility of philosophy?
The three volumes of the series aim to take up these questions in different ways, using different forms borrowed from the history of philosophy. The first volume – In the Dust of This Planet – introduces the general themes, particularly regarding the limits of the human and the idea of the “world-without-us.” This volume – Starry Speculative Corpse – aims to, as I’ve said, read philosophy as if it were horror, while the third volume – Tentacles Longer Than Night – aims to do the reverse, to read works of the horror genre as if they were works of philosophy.
Starry Speculative Corpse is published by Zer0 on 24th April 2015.
As a big fan of both Bowie and Chris O’Leary, it was as hard to select an extract from Rebel Rebel as it is to choose a favourite Bowie song; each song is covered in a self-contained entry, and they’re all fascinating.
In the end I chose a series of 3 posts which make chronological/conceptual sense, and shed entertaining light on Bowie’s complicated relationship with late ‘60s hippy culture. Also contains The Prettiest Star, which is far from his best track but which, for sentimental reasons, remains one of my all-time favourites.
Rebel Rebel (Zer0, 2015) is out on March 27th, there’s a list of stockists here.
Recorded: (demo, “Lover to the Dawn,” unreleased) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road. Bowie: 12-string acoustic guitar, harmony vocal; Hutchinson: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal; Christmas: 12-string acoustic guitar; Wayne: lead guitar; Renwick: rhythm guitar; Wakeman: electric harpsichord; Lodge: bass; Cambridge: drums. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft.
First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.
“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.