“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Not mystification, but mysticism. The trouble is, if you accuse someone of mysticism you are repeating a founding gesture of Western philosophy. After all, Plato was a mystic, in the strict sense that he was a practitioner of the Eleusianian Mysteries. What were they? We don't know, because they were secret.

“Mysterion” means secret in Greek.
Actually it really means “unspeakable,” and here's where we get into some interesting speculative terrain. There are, mysticisms claim, all kinds of facts that we can't speak about. They exist, but we don't have words for them. Is this not also the case with some forms of speculative reason and in particular with OOO?

These facts are not only unspeakable, they are self-secret. That is, withdrawn, in OOO lingo. Even when you yourself know them, what you know is that something, or some things, are real, that cannot be spoken—even to yourself.

It's interesting, then, that some forms of SR are indeed thinking about mysticism seriously. Nicola Masciandaro and Eugene Thacker stand out as recent exponents. It's why I'm writing an essay for Glossator on “the mystical text.”

As an aside to our neuroscience friends, what do you say about an experiment that is one of the most eminently repeatable ones on Earth? Namely, the inducing of mystical experiences in humans? Meditation, dancing, drugs and yoga (and on and on) can induce states that are remarkably similar. (As William James argued—I happen to be going over his stuff for my Buddhism book.) Most scientists would kill for that amount of data.

I make no claim here to justify these experiences, recommend
them, or explain them. I would however like to point out that from the experiencers' point of view at least, they have the quality of scientific observation.

Something real is happening, something totally unpredictable, beyond the ego, something unexpected and surprising and all the more real for that. Something as real as my fingers typing this appear to be. An object, if you will.

So how come when the accusation of mysticism is made, it's made to suggest something that's the opposite of science, and the opposite of philosophy?

Again, it has to do with the founding gesture of Western philosophy, which bowdlerized Plato (he just put that reincarnation stuff in at the very end of his most important book for a joke) and dictated which experiences were proper for Christians (the persecution of the Gnostics, who usually had some kind of Neoplatonism going on). So the accusation of mysticism is carrying on the mission of the Church Fathers, which might not be deliberate—but that's how memes are, they pass from mind to mind.

Now the other trouble with the accusation is that you open yourself up to an accusation yourself, from a yet more “rigorous,” yet more “rational” view. Almost every tenth page of Nihil Unbound is a heavy assault on mysticism—but now mysticism includes believing in things like a human subject, sentient experience, or any kind of “manifest content” whatsoever—anything up from the strictest mathematical formulae.

So if you play with the accusation of mysticism, you are playing with fire.

I don't know much about Laruelle yet—I'm still making my way through Future Christ. But I really like his argument about the foundations of Western philosophy and the origins of religious violence, which I have outlined here.

The accusation of mysticism is the essence of Buddhaphobia, because it is saying that having a state of mind without obvious reference to some pre-established ontic factoid is always a suspicious, if not dangerous indulgence.

And to see you're really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you


Bill Benzon said...

Umm, err, neuroscientists have been stalking mystical experience since the 1960s & 1970s and are still at it. Get an experienced Buddhist monk (or whatever), hook him up to an EEG machine, MRI, whatever you've got in the lab, and watch the brain during meditation. Check out James Austin, Zen and the Brain. Google "neurotheology." Heck, check out my book, Beethoven's Anvil: Music in the Mind and Culture, where I discuss similar matters.

Timothy Morton said...

I'd be interested to read that book. But my point is not about those guys--it's about the new kids.