August 16, 2009

Break through in grey lair


    Instead of tripping and beating a philosophy for its supposed faults only to end up with the same range of mediocre biases with which we began, we ought to find a more vigorous means of engagement with philosophers. The method I propose is to replace the piously overvalued ‘critical thinking’ with a seldom-used hyperbolic thinking. For me at least, it is only books of the most stunning weakness that draw attention to non sequiturs and other logical fallacies. The books that stir us most are not those containing the fewest errors, but those that throw most light on unknown portions of the map. In the case of any author who interests us, we should not ask ‘where are the mistakes here?’, as if we hoped for nothing more than to avoid being fooled. We should ask instead: ‘what if this book, this thinker, were the most important of the century? How would things need to change? And in what ways would we feel both liberated and imprisoned?’ Such questions restore the proper scale of evaluation for intellectual work: demoting the pushy careerist sandbagger who remains within the bounds of the currently plausible and prudent, and promoting the gambler who uncovers new worlds. Nietzsche makes far more ‘mistakes’ than an average peer-reviewed journal article, but this does not stop intelligent adults from reading him all night long, while tossing the article aside for a day that never comes. Graham, Prince Of Networks

This is one of the most stirring passages in Prince Of Networks, and it's particularly worth citing just now, when the topic of grey vampires has come up again. The mention of Nietzsche reminds me that he is one of the great scourges of grey vampirism, nowhere more than in the following passage from Part Six of Beyond Good And Evil:

    "Aren’t people’s ears all full enough already of wicked noises?” says the sceptic, as a friend of peace, almost as a sort of security police: “This subterranean No is terrifying! Be quiet at last, you pessimistic moles!” For the sceptic, this tender creature, is frightened all too easily. His conscience has been trained to twitch with every No, even with every hard, decisive Yes—to respond as if it had been bitten. Yes! And No!—that contradicts his morality. Conversely, he loves to celebrate his virtue with a noble abstinence, by saying with Montaigne, “What do I know?” Or with Socrates, “I know that I know nothing.” Or “Here I don’t trust myself. There is no door open to me here.” Or “Suppose the door was open, why go in right away?” Or “What use are all rash hypotheses? Not to make any hypotheses at all could easily be part of good taste. [...]" In this way a sceptic consoles himself, and he certainly needs some consolation. For scepticism is the spiritual expression of a certain multifaceted physiological condition which in everyday language is called weak nerves and infirmity.

Baron Mordant wrote to me a while back asking if grey vampirism wasn't a symptom of mental illness, and it is - but of the widespread, normalised and normalising pathology that Nietzsche describes here. As is wont, Nietzsche attributes the rise of the "spider scepticism" to racial intermixing but we needn't follow his ethnicising logic in order to utilise his analysis, which applies with uncanny acuity to the impasses of postmodern relativism and the stale corridors of the academy, tyrannised by the Fear - where the worst thing that could happen was that you are caught out in an error or a miscited quotation, rather than that you have wasted your life in endless equivocation, quibbling and deferral (while crying in your state-subsidised beer that you are doing so...)

Vampires do not appear in mirrors. In the case of grey vampires - and remember that there are vampires that are not grey; there are other kinds of energy piracy altogether, some more lustrous and ferocious - this means both that they cannot recognise themselves as vampires and that their existence is entirely dependent upon the attention of the Other. Grey vampires do not see themselves as vampires; they sincerely think that is a duty to deflate enthusiasm and puncture projects. One sure sign of a grey vampire is the airy dismissal of concepts such as energy vampirism - no matter what their theoretical commitments might be in their published intellectual work, GVs are resolutely commonsensical in their everyday ontologies. But make no mistake about it, there is no more Real level to human life than that of energy and its distribution. As Burroughs more than anyone else realised, persons and the social are just masks covering up a terrain populated by energy predators and propagators.

Remember that you have to invite a vampire over your threshold - and grey vampires, like trolls, lose all their power once you cease to pay them attention or think about them. That is why, when they feel that your attention is gone, GVs will try any trick to regain it - the appeal to 'democratic' values is a particularly scurrilous tactic ('you must give me your attention! It's your duty'). Trollls shamelessly try the same thing, of course, and it must be remembered that GVs are enablers of trolls - they like to position themselves as scrupulously neutral, uncommitted (whilst proferring all sorts of promissory notes about the commitments that they will make in future, what they will do once X or Y have stopped, the bad faith fantasies that prevent them from seeing the trap they are in) but the grey vampire's secret sympathies are always with the troll. For the troll actually articulates the resentment and spite which the grey vampires feel but are not able to express. They share the trolls' justification for their action - the belief that some people are getting ahead of themselves, that there is rather too much unseemly excitement about X or Y.... As if what was required in intellectual life is more bent heads, more bitterness, less enthusiasm.... Some teachers and lecturers do think that way, see it as their role duty to pass on the arid petrification which calcified their spirit usually sometime during their postgraduate career ... Remember: all vampires are victims of vampirism...

But I see motivating students, passing on enthusiasm, as the first and most important task of a teacher. (Which isn't to say that one has to blindly encourage everyting a student says or writes; far from it.) That's why I would say that one of the most despicable figures in the academic bestiary is the Troll-Master: the figure who feeds on the crushed enthusiasm of belittled students. The easiest way to win a cheap kind of respect is by adopting a nothing-can-impress-me hyper-critical stance, doused in cool weltweltschmerz, finding fault everywhere handing out praise and encouragement only very rarely; it's a transparent tactic, but one that works surprsingly well, and not only on jejune students, but also on very accomplished people, even those who have written a number of books. Often, the Troll-Master's own intellectual project will be mediocre and/ or suspended - it's clear that all their libidinal energy is tied up in enslaving students into neurotic servitude. Troll-Masters can permanently insinuate themselves into students' heads, but usually their power depends upon the hothouse claustrophobia of the university department - they are village despots, whose charismatic tyranny seldom works outside their own turf. If they have a long-term effect, it is only to produce more grey vampires.

Graham is absolutely right to note that grey vampires tend to operate on a one-to-one basis, whereas trolls always require an audience. That's because trolls want the attention of the big Other, whereas grey vampires want to directly identify with the big Other - to become the voice of neutrality and authority, the voice from nowhere, which doesn't make any refutable claims and therefore cannot be caught out. The reason that there is a close fit between grey vampirism and the academy - now more than ever - is that the academy seeks to inculcate precisely this kind of neurotic neutrality (the other side of careerist sandbaggery), where the most important thing is that footnotes are correctly formatted. It is usually liberating to actually read the work of GVs and Troll-Masters: from their endless, refined critique, you're led to believe that what they produce will be the most sophisticated, error-free, immaculate work you could imagine; it's quite a shock when you actually read it and see how contestable and (often) mediocre it is.

The alternative to these traps is not the heroic solitary genius, but the network, another reason that Graham's new book is so important. As Nick Srnicek has been arguing, political theory now has to deal with the question of networks. (Inidentally, one of the reasons that Speculative Realism can contribute so much to political theory is that the areas SR opens up do not come already pre-packed in supersaturated pseudo-political 'meaning', as in the exhuasted, dustbowl terrains presided over by trad continental philosophy.) The toxicity of grey vampires and trolls is so important to think about because they it is essentially network toxicity. Troll-jouissance is derived precisely from their capacity to corrupt networks - the troll's usual MO is enter a thriving network and destroy it by diverting all its energy to dealing with them. The grey vampire, as ever, is more subtle - and, for that reason and for so many others, more dangerous. They sap the network's energy, not only by defending trolls, but by also defending equivocation itself, by construing any decision or determinate position as oppressive (deconstruction is a grey vampire pathology). Their preferred model for discussion is the fruitless combat of the comments box/ discussion board 'debate'. This is the energy-swamp of web 2.0; but other kinds of network can grow here too.

Posted by mark at August 16, 2009 04:21 PM | TrackBack