The Black Gravity Of Sound: An Interview With Eugene Thacker

THE QUIETUS, October 28th 2018

Cited as an influence on Warren Ellis and True Detective, Eugene Thacker’s philosophical investigations into the “unthinkable world” find new expression in his latest book for Repeater, Infinite Resignation. Here he talks to Michael Brooks about the horrors of philosophy, music, and film

On receiving Eugene Thacker’s latest book Infinite Resignation in the post, I called to mind something a friend of mine said once on a walk through a wood. Talking on the matter of optimism and pessimism, and ‘half-full glasses’ versus ‘half-empty glasses’, said friend sighed, “let’s be honest, the glass is fucking smashed already, isn’t it?” I still consider it one of the more bluntly pessimistic things I’ve heard someone say with apparent spontaneity, and it’s only a couple of pages in to his book that Thacker addresses the same cliché with his preferred joke, ‘the glass is half-full, but of poison’.

Self-indulgent posturing this may seem, but it feels like wherever you look in these strange and febrile times, a cynical and doomy pessimism holds sway. Post-2008 financial crash, and particularly since 2016 with the seismic rupture of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, not to mention the ongoing aftershocks of anti-Semitic resurgence and the rise of the far right across Europe; the liberal optimism that fuelled mainstream political opinion for so long has been dealt a severe blow. Throw a rock these days it seems, and you’ll hit a pessimist, views scorched with the zealous bleakness of the new convert on everything from the state of democracy, nationalism, climate change, terrorism, and whether the sky itself might just fall in on them at any moment.

It’s fair to say that a nearly 400-page book on philosophical pessimism is not going to be everyone’s preferred bedtime reading. But that said, Thacker is one of the most refreshing thinkers to come out of the United States in recent years – 2011’s In the Dust of This Planet has become something of a must-read – and certainly a book of this nature would be a lot less engaging in other hands. He splits the book into two halves; the second, and more straight-forward, is a series of profiles focusing on who he calls the ‘patron saints’ of pessimism, such as E. M. Cioran, Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Pascal, and such like. Orthodox this section may be, but it’s no less interesting for it.

In contrast, the first half consists of a stream of aphorisms, snippets, discarded thoughts, and observations that abound with gallows humour, melancholy and down-right misanthropy. This section is the more engaging but challenging of the two, alternating between personal vignettes that course with the hot light of the familiar – the escalating irritation experienced by close proximity to an ostentatiously loud couple in a quiet coffee-shop – and poetic fragments (“the quiet vertigo in our ears is the slumbering turning of diffident dripping black moons”) that prove rather less successful, making one wish that the text had been across the desk of perhaps a harsher editor. Some aphorisms glare off the page with a frankly unremitting bleakness – “a park, a beach, a city street, an outdoor market, a concert, a restaurant … there is no better display of existential squalor than human beings performing their own enjoyment before each other” – that on more than one occasion gave me cause to cast the book aside with a sigh.

As a registering of the collective pulse, and an enquiry or study into the quotidian mood of the prevailing ‘it’s all fucked’ variety, Infinite Resignation will provide succour to those of an already pessimistic disposition, context to those with a healthy interest, and a devastating challenge to those incurably happy types who probably won’t pick it up in the first place, but almost certainly should.

I thought I’d start with the timeless philosophical question paraphrasing John Stuart Mill who asked whether ‘it was better to be a pig satisfied than a Socrates dissatisfied?’ In other words, is ignorance bliss if it means avoiding a life of pessimism?

One question that often comes up with so-called pessimist thinkers like Schopenhauer is, if it’s all for naught, life has no purpose, and non-existence is preferable to existence, then why bother writing it all down? So the first thing one has to grapple with is space of uncertainty and unresolved-ness that marks out the terrain of this kind of philosophy. There’s a bit of irony or hypocrisy in a lot of the thinkers and writers I look at in the book, because they start by trying to figure things out and somewhere along the line it all falls apart. Some of them try to seek some sort of redemption from that, perhaps through the act of writing or documenting it, but a lot of them just throw up their hands. Sometimes you sense that they know going into it that it’s futile, but other times it’s unintentional and that’s equally interesting… [+]


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