“Pessimism, Futility and Extinction”: An Interview with Eugene Thacker – Thomas DEKEYSER

Theory, Culture & Society, 2020, Vol. 37(7–8) 367–381

Abstract: In this interview with Thomas Dekeyser, Eugene Thacker elaborates on the central themes of his work. Addressing themes including extinction, futility, human universalism, network euphoria, political indecision and scientific nihilism, the interview positions Thacker’s work within the contemporary theoretical conjuncture, specifically through its relation to genres of thought his work is often grouped with or cast against: vitalism, speculative realism and accelerationism. More broadly, however, the interview offers a unique insight into Thacker’s approach to the thinking, doing and writing of ‘philosophy’.

Keywords: abolitionism, extinction, network society, nihilism, pessimism, speculative realism, vitalism


In the past two decades, Eugene Thacker’s work has captured the attention and imagination of academic theorists and cultural practitioners around the world. His unique voice is inspired by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cioran, Kierkegaard, Mainländer, Pascal, Unamuno, Eckhart and others who are – often against their will or post-mortem – classified as belonging to a pessimist ‘school of thought’. Through the lure of pessimism, demonology, mysticism and nihilism, his work raises important questions around familiar themes in philosophy and cultural theory – philosophy’s own status, the category of the human, biopolitics, network cultures, extinction – but, like many of those thinkers who inspire him, he always does so almost reluctantly, as if overwhelmed by the futility of thought.

His latest book, titled Infinite Resignation (2018), delivers short passages, aphorisms and musings, together adding up to a world that is dark and full of suffering, while also being surprisingly humble and humorous. As he describes in the book, Thacker’s pessimist tone emerges in tension with two other genres of pessimism. The first – moral pessimism – is a subjective pessimism: the world is ‘made in our own suffocating image, a world-for-us’ (2018: 9). It is the pessimism of those who would rather not have been born at all. The second genre – metaphysical pessimism – is an objective pessimism: the world is ‘closed off and opaque, objected and projected as a world-in-itself’ (2018: 9). It is the pessimism of those who, like Schopenhauer, condemn this world as ‘the worst of all possible worlds’. These two forms can be summarised as, respectively, the pessimism of ‘the glass is half-empty’ and the pessimism that takes ‘empti- ness as the property of all glass’. But both pessimistic genres are, Thacker notes, compromised philosophically. They fail ‘to locate human beings within a larger non-human world’ (2018: 9), tethered as they are to the anthropocentric delusion of a ‘human’ world. Hoping to conjure a pessimism of the world-without-us, he arrives, tentatively, at what he calls a ‘cosmic pessimism’, even if such a project could, by definition, never add up to a graspable, coherent story, a human story. Instead, cosmic pessimism is a pessimism of impersonal affects, scaling-up, scaling-down, the human point of view, a pessimism succumbing to the indifference of the cosmos.

But Thacker’s is a complex intellectual journey, refusing any simple classification or positioning. Before first entering into an explicit engagement with pessimism with the Horror of Philosophy series (2011, 2015a, 2015b), his earlier books yield distinctive contributions to debates around the notion of ‘life’ in philosophy, the economics of biotechnologies, control through networks, science-fiction as critical practice, the technoscientific body, among other themes. What is remarkable is how, throughout these works, Thacker already returns, again and again, to the problematic of what he calls an ‘unhuman concept of life’ (Thacker, 2010: xv), a concept that would later underpin ‘cosmic pessimism’ and its ideas of a ‘world-without-us’. These works, each in their own way, think through a way of understanding life that is neither anthropomorphic or anthropocentric, nor misanthropic. It’s a conception of life that starts from the unintelligibility inhabiting any ontology of life. For Thacker (2010), life tends to be ontologised by way of something other than life (time, form, spirit). The human impossibility to think life in itself sits uncomfortably with contemporary conceptions of life in phenomenologist, correlationist and vitalist thought.

Hoping to further ‘locate’ Thacker’s genre of pessimism, the interview engages a variety of themes with an eye on better understanding how his work connects to, or might be cast against, contemporary fields of thought. Thacker specifically offers an, at times strident, set of comments on speculative realism, vitalism and accelerationism.

What is perhaps one of the central virtues of this interview is how it also provides insight into Thacker’s approach to the project of philosophy more broadly. Reading through the interview, we witness his approach in action. Thacker steps back from the questions at times, refraining from and revealing the lure of solutionism, totalising stories, passing theoretical fads and the all-too-human-centric thought of those he calls ‘Panglossian professional thinkers’ in this interview. At the edge of contemporary thought, he reminds us, even pessimism becomes a means to an end. By contrast, for Thacker, pessimism is ‘the introduction of humility into thought’ (2018: 26), and with it, the danger of thought slipping into futility.

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