The actual is contingent in this respect in the sense that the tools with which we think are products or deposits of semiotic relays that cannot by their very nature possess any intrinsic necessity. It is not that they could be otherwise, but that as they are, they are otherwise than necessary. This presents a purely positive characterization of contingency that does not depend upon either the negation of necessity nor the possibility of negation in general and is on the other hand not reducible to the arbitrary. Signs that are contingent in this sense possess a dimension of objective indeterminacy that is a function of the power of their semiotic character.
Why is it so hard to talk to those to whom we are closest? Is it nature, squirming and skirmishing against itself, avoiding the prospect of collapse into indistinction, as its creatures occasionally verge on the identity of indiscernibles? Or is it culture, equivocating (at) us through signs, exerting its law of metonymic drift? When do the Ravens belong to Odin, and when to Baltimore, and what, really is the difference, when Beyonce dresses and dances a look raven-worthy, and the lights go out in Voodoo, USA, exactly at the magical 13th minute and equally potent 22nd second, as in the 22nd and final tarot arcana, The World, lights out? But now, thanks to Rocky, the question can change, because we see, in an uncanny flash, that this series of contingencies belong to sign Raven as otherwise than necessary, and the problem is not how any two ravens can communicate (let alone how they can be the same), but why it is so easy, so effortless, so fluid in relay, for raven to make itself ever more indeterminate, ever more redolent, ever more resonant, ever more and yes, never more, thank you Edgar Allen Poe, I heard you. So it is not hard, actually, to talk to those to whom we are closest, as long as we admit that with those one is closest to, or those one also is, there is both nothing left (out) and everything (yet) to say.
I determined to divine the significance of the fact that Rocky’s instructions to the philosophical moment were mediated through the arcana of the Empress. Why the Empress, in particular, at this juncture, as the vector through which Rocky’s message appears? What is her contingent necessity?
Turning to some of the traditional meanings associated with the Empress, I found the following warning: when she is reversed or badly placed in a reading, the powers of nature turn from beneficence to catastrophe. One text evoked the saying, “nature, driven out through the door, will come back through the window.”
How can both of these images be the Empress? How can the Empress, as emphatic and enigmatic sign, can sustain such variation in determination, from the peaceful, almost luxurious scene of elemental effortlessness, of leadership through sustained intuitive attention, to the arid, depersonalized, schizo-affective power surging through the eminence gris of contemporary intelligence gathering networks? Is the Empress horrified at what she has become? Is she warning us of what may happen, or signifying that she is already lost? Or has she simply mutated, and is waiting for us to catch up? It seems at any rate that cosmic wisdom (Empress as “natural mystic,” as in Bob Marley’s tune) once personified as feminine, maternal, nurturing, abundant, fluid supple, is now figured as neutered, abstract, impersonal, sterile, infomatic.
One of the most highly symptomatic attributes of current continental philosophical speculation is a rejection of the concept of nature. What, today, is seen as more defunct, irreparably damaged, or simply irrelevant than a concept of nature? There seems, in fact, to be something like an imperative forming to refuse the term and the concept, altogether. Nature is being driven out the door. And this is not merely conceptual. How can one call earthquakes or global warming, hurricanes like Sandy or unnamed tsunamis, “nature” anymore, as if something over there, on the other side of the picket fence from culture? Surely we do not think in a vacuum, but from the unfolding catastrophe, in which we perhaps feel ourselves as schizoid as these seemingly perverse events. But perhaps this evisceration of nature is coterminous with an invitation, or rather an evocation, of nature back through the window, through some darker, harder, more obscure and enigmatic conception of ecology or existence or even of nothingness. To think nature, anymore, has become for many in the vanguard of philosophy a thought not even of existence but of processes of annihilation, not of life but of nothingness, not of bodies but of abstract, ideal continuities. I have evoked, in this series, the works of Ray Brassier, Eugene Thacker, and Reza Nagarestani, in shorthands that pretend no justice to the importance and seriousness of all three undertakings. And Anthony Paul Smith’s unfolding work on ecologies of thought could not be more important to our moment—his conception of nature as perverse seems increasingly apropos, even urgent.
It’s important to me, however, to linger with this problem a moment longer, the problem of the relation between a lost or eviscerated nature, an obliterated or catastrophic nature, and an enigmatic vision of philosophical authority that is indexed to a tonic perspective in that presumed perpetual apocalypse. It seems to me that this problem—and it is, in the end, the problem of the changing image of the Empress—goes back at least to Plato’s Timaeus, where the authority of knowledge is linked to an insight into what persists through change in nature, where changing, transforming nature is equivocal, at least for Plato if not for the subsequent tradition up through Badiou, with loss, instability, and catastrophic unpredictability. The tendency of philosophy to resist the contingent status of its materials and practices and habits, the contingency Rocky so incisively demands we confront as the spirituality we always implicitly, and more or less badly practice, is perhaps as old as philosophy itself—the search for stable Forms, secure criteria. The resistance to spirituality in philosophy is somehow also its resistance to necessary contingency, to a nature it would rather survey than surf, risk falling, getting rolled, even drowning.
It is more than appropriate at this occasion, and is contingently necessary, for me to confront the problem of sex and gender in relation to nature, the historically contingent but putatively universal engendering of nature, earth, and kora as female, feminine, woman, and the equally contingent and equally unavoidable fact of the philosophical outlook as a prototypical male gaze upon that luxuriating, enigmatic, tortured, alluring, shape-shifting body. It’s also impossible not to mention the specific occlusion, and bloody persecution, by the philosophical and theo-political mainstream of “esoteric” insight or “occult” wisdom as a specifically feminized knowledge, a witch’s flight, a sensitivity to animal, affective interconnectedness. From within this frame, around it, through it, many subversions, perversions, avoidances, strategic or helpless or traumatic, have all been possible and all been necessary, and all of us who count themselves feminist, still, have continued to contemplate the political stakes and political possibilities of bending and unbending the gender of nature as much as the nature of gender. I am convinced that to simply avoid the legacy of the gender of both nature and philosophy is not to resolve the issue. Even if full gender equality (including transgender and many other gender potencies) is reached, which I of course hope it one day will be, the problem of the historical engendering of nature and wisdom will persist, coming back in through the window once we drive them, with our polite liberal anxieties, out the door.
For it is not only earth or nature that has been long engendered woman, but wisdom itself, Sophia, as in philo-sophia. It is not only the object gazed upon, but the gaze itself, that must be given by this beatific spiritualized woman. One recalls, of course, Boethius, and the consolations of philosophy, and his vision of a virginal, elusive, yet condescending and complicit source of truth. Even for my heretical brother Bruno, the absolute was named mater materia, even if he did, in a fascinating way, ascribe a kind of fecundity and virility to her that is generally coded in terms of male power and prestige. At this point, in 2013, the least I can say is that the complex feminine figure of nature continues to haunt philosophy, that this complex is unresolved, and will remain unresolved even if philosophy itself reaches some kind of numerical homeostasis as between the many genders possible at a given juncture of human existence. It is not difficult to see contemporary philosophy, especially in some of its painfully male guises, continue to enact various symptomatic repetitions of the traumatic disconnect or split within a nature-wisdom dyad. Object-oriented ontology can be seen as a rather “abject-oriented” subjectivity, an affect-neutralized gaze devoured by the black hole maw of the object’s withdrawal; Meillassoux might be seen then as the perversion to this hysteria, in my view a much more promising strategy of attempting to rhyme thought with the rhythms of the hyper-chaotic, itself. But if these strategies and others (and again, why so predominantly male, so boyish, so eager, even desperate?) seem to translate or transmutate “nature” into something less (than) personified, figured, let alone gendered, perhaps it is still after all the Empress reaching us through the contingently necessary. What might it promise, after all, if nature is not some enigmatic “thing” but is rather an open-ended set of information, of information collecting and disseminating agencies? Might there truly be a future for existence (and for nature) if we can leave nature out of ecology, for now, if we can learn again what it is to hear nature as message and not merely as object, inert stuff? Perhaps it is contingently necessary to remain with this perspective shift, from the Rider-Waite to the Suzanne Treister’s image, at least for now.
Consider in closing the following from one of the world’s most prominent woman philosophers, Avitall Ronnell, published synchronously with Rocky’s message to us:
I try to review our recent wars, whether mapped on Afghanistan or in ghetto streets and surrounding precarious clinics. I try to gauge the implication, however remote, of every citizen, in the waging of these and other aggressions. This seems far-fetched — perhaps closer to science fiction than to science. Is there a way in which radically disrupted weather systems tell us, maybe merely on an unconscious register, that we are involved in world-class wrongdoing? In a Shakespearean way, I keep on punctuating such observations by the refrain: “No, such a reproach cannot be addressed to us.” I am also of the scientific epoch and understand the repercussions of global warming.
Still, could the super-storm have been a call from elsewhere? A reminder of the stripped-down disposal of enemy troops or tropes, our graceless menu of aggressions brought home to us, the world-class homeless? I may or may not have my finger on the pulse of Hegel’s Weltgeist, the guiding world-spirit, but something about my very private and idiomatic blues comes from the pressure of a sustained injustice, a dishonoring that occurs in my name and that may affect all Americans on one level of consciousness or another.
What we have here, in Ronnell, is a kind of foreclosed practice of divination, a necessarily failed performance that, ab negatio, intends to divine (for) us. It’s like Bob Dylan used to say, you know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones. And of course we don’t know because what we recognize as knowledge is, since Kant at least, knowledge of causal relations alone. And there are either no causal relations (from a Newtonian point of view) or only indeterminate ones (from a relativistic point of view) to be had. Although Ronnell leaves the connections unspecified, and refutes Freud’s hypothesis of meaning as infantile narcissistic fantasy by implication rather than direct attack, she points in the right direction. But working out of an explicitly Derridean perspective, she brings in hermeticism—mind as resonant with the absolute interconnectivity among all events, “as above, so below,”—through that auratic, slightly punning innuendo that rides through the word “implication.” Ronnell, with perfect intellectual honesty cannot gauge the possible culpability (i.e. implication) of the individual citizen in the federal aggressions, let alone the relations between super-storms and the nearly super-natural level of hegemony currently mustered by drone-striking US foreign policy. And yet the coincidence of events leads her into some vague, depressing sense of the horror of it all. The only thing false here is the felt need to, and foreclosed ability to engage in, such gauging as a form of judgment: the felt need to pass such judgment, at the level of knowledge of what causes what.
Part of what I am holding out for, by pointing to a Renaissance view of signs, from Cusa and Bruno and Pico back into Deleuze, is the significance of acausal connecting principles that are objectively “in” signs themselves. Jung called this principle synchronicity; I am experimenting with calling it the modal irreducibility of the contingent actual. In the book I’m writing now, on divination, I am at least holding out for the proposition that we will not comprehend the significance, for knowledge, of the contingent actual until we learn to practice divination differently, in a way that avoids the twin perversions of personalized fantasies of guilt and revenge, or collectivized fantasies of financial speculation, the psychotic dream of profiting in the future from immediate needs to survive. This difficult adoption of a truly prophetic (rather than fortune-telling) divination might finally be worthy of a scepter, a shield, and a crown.