On the mortal soul

When I published my recent piece Toward the Butlerian Jihad one of the concepts I brought in was the mortal soul. This was largely in service, as others have noted, of a secularization of the concept of the Butlerian Jihad – a holy war against “thinking machines” that occupies the position of a considerable historical event in the background of the science fiction novel Dune and its sequels.

However, as has been rightly pointed out by others, playing around with the idea of a soul which could be disfigured raises the risk of reintroducing natural law into our metaphysics. This is, of course, something we should avoid. I had been thinking about expanding on the concept of the mortal soul regardless as a part of my overall project on materialism and magic however, in light of this well-received response, I thought it’d be a good idea to get this explanation out a bit faster than I otherwise might have.

A brief genealogy might be a good place to start. The idea of the mortal soul is something most directly encountered in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil where he says, “Let it be permitted to designate by this expression the belief which regards the soul as something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, as a monad, as an atomon: this belief ought to be expelled from science! Between ourselves, it is not at all necessary to get rid of “the soul” thereby, and thus renounce one of the oldest and most venerated hypotheses—as happens frequently to the clumsiness of naturalists, who can hardly touch on the soul without immediately losing it. But the way is open for new acceptations and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as ‘mortal soul,’ and ‘soul of subjective multiplicity,’ and ‘soul as social structure of the instincts and passions,’ want henceforth to have legitimate rights in science.”

Nietzsche attempts to walk a razor’s edge here between a materialist account of the world which abandons the concept of the soul and what he describes as the Christian atomism of the soul which he treats as the last vestiges of a belief in a rigid substance.

Nietzsch’s soul of subjective multiplicity is, instead, a process of transformation that occurs within a person. We cannot treat a mortal soul as a substantial object: a ghost within a shell. Instead it represents the ever-transforming flow of subjectivities, affects and material effects created by a person. However this psychological frame does not discount a theological reading as we can find reflections of this in the far-older concept of Anattā.

This is a thorny issue within Buddhism so I will provide my interpretation which is largely drawn from the Chán school however I do anticipate lively disagreement here. At an etymological level, Anattā means no-self. This is a challenging concept because Buddhism upholds reincarnation as a part of its metaphysical universe and if there is, in fact, no self then what is there to reincarnate?

There are two possible solutions here. The first is to suggest that there is no unchanging self while there may be a continuous stream of being, a flow of moral development and consequence, we cannot point to it as an eternal and unchanging self. After all, how could a person develop toward Nirvāna if change was impossible? As such we see a soul that exists but is, much as Nietzsche would later propose, a “soul of subjective multiplicity.” From this sense it doesn’t matter much if the soul passing between bodies is substantial because it will be caught in a constant transformation brought about by the accumulated weight of its past lives and the condition of its latest birth.

Another solution would be to treat a soul much as a candle flame used to light a second candle. In this case the original flame will eventually burn out but the new flame will remain. The origin of this new flame carries from the extinguished flame before but it is not of a substance at all. Rather it is a spark, a blend of flow and event, which ignites a novel being. The treatment of a soul as a flame is valuable here for creating an account of soul as process. A flame is never still, never static, it consumes fuel it produces waste. Early metaphysicians such as the stoics also associated fire with an elementary vital principle throughout the universe. In this sense fire stands as a form of life and even now that we understand these phenomena to be separate from each other fire remans a valuable metaphor for describing the process of a life as process, as flow and event.

And so what is a mortal soul but the account of the changes brought about through a life. As such the soul extends past the body of any given subject and into the socius that forms around them. A subject is a process of transformation. I am, at 44, not the same person I was at 22 or at 11. And tomorrow I will be somebody different still. The very act of putting pen to paper on this essay transforms me in that it will change, subtly or suddenly, how others see me. This act dissolves the body of the subject into the field of being because it is equally true that subjective changes within me – the idea of what I, as a subject, am is constantly reassessed. Being is contingent and there is no essential character to a being.

This is ultimately my interpretation of Anattā: a being that exists as process and absent substance, absent essence. This, then, gets to my later criticism regarding AI and death. These necromantic objects operate from the assumption of an essence. In order for a podcast with Plato to have any meaning whatsoever there must be an essential Plato who can be conjured back out of his texts.

That the idea of Plato, the soul of the man, is entirely different now as he has become the commentaries of philosophy and counter-philosophy passing through Aristotle and Plotinus, a worm through time all the way to Kant, Hegel and all the rest, makes the idea of a podcast that returns him to a single essential figure who could be interrogated or who could interrogate in some meaningful way absurd.

It is disfiguring of the soul because it wants to fix this process of transformation back into a substance. In the Jean Leflambeur trilogy by Hannu Rajaniemi we see such a mission taken to its absolute extreme as the Sobornost seek to do away with death itself. Their mission, to roll back time and do what Benjamin’s angel of history could not, restoring all the dead souls lost to history is a threat to others in this book’s universe precisely because of the terrifying impact such a deed would have on the ability of (post)humanity to continue to change.

Growth and change depends on the elimination of essence. Once we allow essence into our metaphysics we are trapped by the idea of Platonic remembrance and everything becomes nothing but an emanation of an essential elsewhere.

In the Theses on the Philosophy of History Walther Benjamin describes Historical Materialism as a Mechanical Turk (not unlike these “AI” tools) which must be animated by a hidden theology to become puissant. Atheist Marxists often interpret this as a critique of the failures of Marxism, like Marxism in the 1930s was insufficiently anti-theological, but this depends, to a certain extent of continuing the mistaken reading of “opiate of the masses” to mean “drug, bad, avoid” rather than historicizing it as meaning, “something to ease pain.” If we read the first thesis in a straightforward way we can instead suggest that a theology (I hesitate to say secular theology here as Benjamin was not a person of secular spirit) is needed. Regardless Benjamin’s theological interpretation of Marxism serves to target the very idea of history as a process of progress. Instead history is the wind which blows Angelus Novus into the future as the debris and dead of past eras heap up at his feet. AI technologies then attempt to do what the angel of history cannot and return these dead to us in some essential form.

I know it is a frightening concept to deny that the unknown future will be redemptive and then to insist we must fight to go there anyway. This is why I briefly invoked Kierkegaard at the end of my piece on the Butlerian Jihad because embracing the danger of an irredemptive and unknown future requires a leap past extreme anxiety. We do not leap toward God for his throne is, by now, thoroughly vacated but this increases the urgency by which we must strike down those people who would raise up a mechanical god to redeem the dead of history.

“It was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement,” Benjamin says and I see a similar critique in those who say that “AI” is necessarily a tool that could be meaningfully wielded by a leftist project. When I say that “AI” must be stolen from the Bourgeoisie what I mean to say is that it is insufficient that Proletarian hands wield this technology for Proletarian aims. This is falling for the same progressivist view of history Benjamin rightly criticizes. Rather I am saying that it is a technology that must be denied from the Bourgeoisie. We don’t take it like Prometheus taking fire from the gods but rather to deny other hands the use of it. I see this as a moral imperative because the resurrection of an essential and immortal soul clogs the path to an open and liberatory future. Effectively the leftist project we can trace through Spinoza and Marx to Beauvoir and others depends on us disregarding the rubble of the past. We cannot redeem the dead. There is no past to return to. If we are to be free we must be mortal: we must be subject to absolute contingency and transformation. Meillassoux describes contingency as being necessary if we are to “get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not,” and, again, this circles back to the anti-facial consciousness raising of Fisher and Foucault. I raise up this spontaneously insurrectionary desire against specters of the social democrats of the Second Internationale as they were the self-same people Benjamin critiqued for mistaking change for progress. Certainly AI tools represent a change; it does not follow they represent a progression.

Unlike Marx I do call for a revolution with a specific moral character – one which I think is clear from the citations of Deleuze and Guattari, Beauvoir, Benjamin and Kierkegaard. This moral universe is one that is necessarily toward spontaneous liberation, the potential of which is as evident as the spontaneous enlightenment of Chán Buddhism. As such its character is necessarily a mass character but one that will not allow for the possibility of redemption. It is, however, still a (secular) theological proposition. We must overcome an overwhelming anxiety that we will not bring about a future that is free and act a if that liberation were assured. In this regard, by putting the debris of history before us, “AI” is an obstacle at best. While contingency allows that a tactical use of “AI” might be valuable in this or that moment we must recognize that any such tactic will be counter to our own ethics; only holding up contingency as the supreme absolute opens the door at all to wielding such a tool.

I do want to temper this statement a bit to suggest I am not making of “AI” a Ruling Ring. This would depend on an absolute and essential understanding of evil which would go against all the contingent and transformative metaphysics I champion. But we should recognize that these uses, even if effective, are not moral. This is not because it violates some natural law. If we follow Meillassoux on contingency then we must vacate every absolute and this includes the absoluteness of laws as fundamental as the Planck Length (as Rajaniemi speculated). If we cannot even say with certainty that:

represents a limit in all places and in all times then how could we possibly say with certainty that there is any sort of social absolute? We must vacate any natural law and treat law with as much contempt as Benjamin did in the Critique of Violence. But we should also accept that even contingency is contingent and that this may lead to the creation of (contingent) fields of consistency. In such a case we can say, barring some transformation heretofore unseen, it’s right for us to do away with these tools as serving only our enemy.

Toward the Butlerian Jihad

In the appendices to Dune, Frank Herbert says that the chief commandment of the Butlerian Jihad was recorded in the Orange Catholic Bible: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” There is quite a lot that we can say about this tiny snippet of text. Helpfully Herbert expands on it.

Also in the appendices Herbert describes how space travel and the concomitant encounter with the infinite that it brought about created a crisis of faith. “All through religion, the feeling of the sacred was touched by anarchy from the outer dark,” Herbert explains before pivoting into the dualistic sort of reading of Taoism that was popular among the New Age movement at the time he was writing Dune, saying, “It was as though Jupiter in all his descendant forms retreated into the maternal darkness to be superseded by a female immanence filled with ambiguity and with a face of many terrors.” Now, again, this is the sort of statement that unfolds almost infinitely and is certainly fascinating. But if we divert ourselves to a discussion of gender and the monad within Dune we’ll never get to the point of discussing the Butlerian Jihad as a movement. So, let’s cut through this to say that Herbert saw, in periods of rapid and remarkable social and technological change, a simultaneous movement both toward the future and also into the past. “It was a time of struggle between beast- demons on the one side and the old prayers and invocations on the other.” And all of this set the basis for the great spiritual movement that set the Dune universe up – the Butlerian Jihad. Which had as its simple aim this: “Man may not be replaced.”

But what Herbert sees in the Butlerian Jihad was not just a political unification against a material foe but also an ecumenical movement wherein people saw in each other a human unity. “All religions had at least one common commandment: “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul.””

This ecumenicalism is why the ultimate text which enshrined the shared religious understanding of the increasingly scattered people of the universe was called the “Orange Catholic Bible” – it was a recognition of both ecumenicalism in general and of paradox in specific. At the time Herbert wrote the Troubles were just heating up and no religious divide seemed as hotly contested as that between Catholicism and Anglicanism outside of perhaps the Sunni / Shia split which also played heavily into Herbert’s speculative comparative theology. Herbert’s appendix on religion is clearly summarized thus: “all religions had at least one common commandment: ‘The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve but a reality to experience.'”

This sense of the mystical permeates Herbert’s view of religion and, in considering the Butlerian Jihad’s focus on the humanistic and the ecumenicalism that emerged out of this humanist focus, we come to see one of the motivations of the Butlerian Jihad as a reification of collective immediate experience over the analytical.

Of course today the name of the Butlerian Jihad is increasingly adopted by those people who are resistant to the hype around two technologies: Large Language Models and and Diffusion Models. These are both probabilistic tools that analyze data and attempt to infer likely results. In the case of LLMs they do so by interrogating a data set for likely text replies to any given text input. In diffusion models they do this by assessing the probability of an image occurring compared to other images with subtly different features. Ultimately both are just a combination of statistics, calculus and stolen copyright IP. These two technologies have been rather deceptively marketed as artificial intelligence. This is a bit rich when the truth is that there is no intelligence at play at all. These algorithms actually do not violate the chief commandment of the Butlerian Jihad in that they are not actually a likeness of a human mind. Rather they are an aggregation of human tools (mathematics) and the products of human labour (training sets). The truth is that the problem with “AI” is not that they have disfigured the soul but rather that their owners would break that other aim of the Butlerian Jihad. They seek to replace workers with these tools. In Capital, Marx said of the Luddites, “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used,” and I do think this is an important step that we have to take if we wish to resist the automation of creative labour and caring labour which is the aim of these men and their tools.

The issue with “AI” isn’t that it disfigures the soul. Instead it’s things like the US National Eating Disorder Helpline laying off its staff in favour of a chatbot. As such we must engage in resistance to AI not as a religious activity but as a political one. But, of course, as Herbert says, “When religion and politics ride the same cart, when that cart is driven by a living holy man (baraka), nothing can stand in their path.”

This is a dichotomy that Deleuze and Guattari interrogate at length in 1227: Treatise on Nomadology – The War Machine, which they open by stating “political sovereignty, or domination, has two heads: the magician-king and the jurist-priest.” This serves to open an axiom in which they argue that the war machine is exterior to the State apparatus.

They go on to state that this opposition of the jurist-priest and the magician-king is only relative. “They function as a pair.” Religion and politics are always riding in the same cart. But, as these two figures together compose the entirety of the state as a stratum, and as they are not actually in conflict but are rather complimentary poles Deleuze and Guattari state that “war is not contained within this apparatus.” War is extrinsic to the construction of the state. The use of violence by a state either occurs via non-warrior means such as the police officer and the judge or it requires a state to bring the military under juridical control.

Deleuze and Guattari deploy Dumézil’s interpretation of the god Indra to argue that he, as a war god, is entirely outside the dualities of the state: “another species, another nature.” They propose that a war machine is not like chess but rather like Go. “Go pieces… have only an anonymous, collective or third-person function: ‘It’ makes a move. ‘It’ could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant.” They describe Go as a war without battle lines, “with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy.”

All this is in service of claiming the production of a war machine outside the boundaries of the state. If Indra and Go and all these other non-state examples from anthropology, mythography and ludic theory are in opposition to the state-construction then we, too, can go to war against the state. They argue for the idea of an Urstaat – that is to say that the existence of humanity is coextensive with the existence of the state but that, likewise, the existence of an outside to the state which is not another state is also coextensive with the existence of humanity. However they continue this argument against the absoluteness of the state by bringing in another concept: ecumenicalism. For Deleuze and Guattari the two elements that allowed the formation of a war machine against the state were the ecumenon of global non-state actors and the fragmentation of culture into bands as per McLuhan‘s investigation of neo-tribalism. But for them these two factors: the global non-state ecumenon and the fragmentation into bands was not a stable dyad but instead represented two tendencies present in all places and at all times and that mixed and blended in various ways. “It is in terms not of independence, but of coexistince and competition in a perpetual field of interaction.”

And it’s with this in mind that they turn to epistemology and the idea of a minor science. And here they put forward that there are, in fact, two sciences: a royal science of objects and solids and a minor science of flow and flux. They identify this with the concept of becoming, which, for Deleuze and Guattari, is always already the domain of the minority as the majority represents a normative influence that attempts to concretize relationships. They describe this as a model of science that is, “problematic, rather than theorematic: figures are considered only from the viewpoints of the affections that befall them.”

This establishes this minor science as being a domain of collective immediacy. Much as the Go piece might be anything from an elephant to a flea the minor science avoids the concrete and analytic approach to reality of royal science. It’s not that these sciences are without math but rather, “instead of being good forms absolutely that organize matter, they are ‘generated’ as ‘forces of thrust’ (poussées) by the material, in a qualitative calculus of the optimum.”

It’s interesting to piece apart how this idea of a nomadic geometry interacts with the method by which diffusion models function. Because, of course, diffusion models are, to a certain extent, doing just this. They are quite literally engaging in a qualitative calculus that attempts to infer an optimum image to respond to a text prompt. And this helps us to disentangle ourselves a bit from the question of the state and return to the question of the “AI” and for us to ask this: should we raise the Butlerian Jihad at all? But this is falling for a trap. It does seem true that diffusion models are, at the very least, the product of a minor science. It’s also very likely true that the first real resistance to them will come from the state form. Western states are deeply concerned with the idea of the, “deepfake,” the idea that a diffusion model might produce hyperreal images that allow for an undermining of the state itself by hostile actors. But, blinded to the existence of an outside to the state, most states can only imagine those hostile actors as being other states. The privacy laws of the EU – that supreme product of the Jurist-Priest – are likely among the greatest obstacles the owners of this war machine will face.

Rather the concern should be that the global ecumenon that holds possession of the war machine represented by “AI” is also not our friend. After all these global ecumenons and these fragmentary bands exist (in part) in a state of perpetual competition. And one of the vectors of competition remains that of class conflict and I’ve talked before about how class conflict is the motor that drives my concerns with “AI” technologies.

Let’s be clear: The Bourgeoisie are one of the global ecumenons that Deleuze and Guattari describe as being outside the state not in terms of independence but rather of, “coexistence and competition in a perpetual field of interaction.” But so are religions. So are band societies. So are the Proletariat. This is an instinct that Marxists had at the outset and have sometimes seemed to forget: the Proletariat are not the citizens of this or that state but are a group of people far greater than any given state. The conflict between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie is coextensive with both state and non-state fields of action. And right now the hands holding the war machine of “AI” are not Proletarian. As such it behooves us either to smash that machine or to steal it.

But what can we do? The powers behind “AI” claim it is an inevitability. You cannot stuff the genie back in the bottle. There is no alternative. Fisher describes this Thatcherite slogan as the ultimate condensation of capitalist realism in his eponymous book. Fisher situates the problem of capitalist realism as, in part, one of interiority and exteriority. “In the 1960s and 1970s, capitalism had to face the problem of how to contain and absorb energies from outside. It now, in fact, has the opposite problem; having all-too successfully incorporated externality, how can it function without an outside it can colonize and appropriate?”

And in this we can see the value, to capitalists, of a minor science that can perpetually produce an outside of sorts. Beyond the practical level of being able to lay off chat line workers, graphic designers, illustrators and ad-copy writers and thus make more money AI allows capitalists to mine the past itself for new products. “How would you like to hear a podcast where Plato talks to Aristotle?” Death remains the outside Capitalism cannot fully conquer. But this creates paradoxical relationship with death within Capitalism. As Erich Fromm says, “The world becomes a sum of lifeless artifacts; from synthetic food to synthetic organs, the whole man becomes part of the total machinery that controls and is simultaneously controlled by… He aspires to make robots as one of the greatest achievements of his technical mind, and some specialists assure us that the robot will hardly be distinguished from living men.” This, Byung-Chul Han reflects, is an “undead, death-free life.” But in its function as a form of undeath we can begin to see how these human tools made by human hands, trained by human labour and employed for human ends, do, ultimately, have an aim which violates that precept of Herbert’s ecumenical religion. By creating an economy of undeath diffusion technologies do, in fact, disfigure the human soul. After all, what else but a disfigurement of his mortal soul could it be to resurrect a homunculus of John Lennon to write new songs for corporate masters? Notwithstanding the statist political concern how disfiguring is the deepfake that takes a person and puts words in their mouth, deeds at their hands and sends these lies out into the vast field of the global online? So perhaps we should raise the banner of Jihad even though this war machine is a tool to smash states. Maybe we should, if we wish to favour the human, or even the broader ecumenon of the living be smashing these machines that ape being without any interiority.

Perhaps the solutions are intertwined with some of the problematics we’ve laid out. In Capitalist Realism Fisher asks the question, “is there no alternative?” And the answer he gives is that alternatives abound. “The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity,” he tells us, “even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”

Fisher never gave us a project though. He never proposed some positive way to get there from here. At least not in any complete form. Before his death he was working on a book called Acid Communism that would have conveyed just this. He never finished it but some fragments exist. In the principal extant fragment Fisher says, “The subduing of the counterculture has seemed to confirm the validity of the scepticism and hostility to the kind of position Marcuse was advancing. If ‘the counterculture led to neoliberalism’, better that the counterculture had not happened. In fact, the opposite argument is more convincing — that the failure of the left after the Sixties had much to do with its repudiation of, or refusal to engage with, the dreamings that the counterculture unleashed. There was no inevitability about the new right’s seizure and binding of these new currents to its project of mandatory individualisation and overwork.” In this fragment Fisher says his plan was to use a hauntological read of the 1960s and 70s to piece out the potentialities never followed – the trail away from “no alternative” and back to a future that could be free. “Potentials exert influence without being actualised. Actual social formations are shaped by the potential formations whose actualisation they seek to impede,” he says. In other words, the first step to realizing an alternative to the neoliberal economic order is to recognize “there is no alternative” for the post-hoc lie it always was. Neoliberalism was only inevitable insofar as it happened. But just because Neoliberalism arose in the 1970s and this is inevitable because the past is inaccessible (notwithstanding the undead ministrations of “AI” software) it does not follow that neoliberalism is inevitable now.

Fisher’s fragment juxtaposes the absolute futurity of Leninism with all its concomitant rigidity and pleasure-denial against the idea of the psychedelic. It seems as if he were pointing in the direction not of a harsh and super-egoic drive into a post-revolutionary future but to one of a collective immediacy defined by an exploration of the bounds of consciousness. On Foucault he said, “Foucault, seldom comfortable in his own skin, was always looking for a way out of his own identity. He had memorably claimed that he wrote ‘in order not to have a face’, and his prodigious exercises in rogue scholarship and conceptual invention, the textual labyrinths he meticulously assembled from innumerable historical and philosophical sources, were one way out of the face. Another route was what he called the limit-experience, one version of which was his encounter with LSD. The limit-experience was paradoxical: it was an experience at and beyond the limits of ‘ordinary’ experience, an experience of what cannot ordinarily be experienced at all. The limit-experience offered a kind of metaphysical hack. The conditions which made ordinary experience possible could now be encountered, transformed and escaped — at least temporarily. Yet, by definition, the entity which underwent this could not be the ordinary subject of experience — it would instead be some anonymous X, a faceless being.” This psychedelic escape from faciality would lead to a form of collective spiritual experience, of “consciousness raising.”

For Fisher, and for many of us who followed in his wake, there was a fundamental error to the Leninist revolutions of the 20th century in staking the spiritual life of their people against a secular religion of the state. Lenin might claim that the future would absolve him when these states withered away and we got communism but, as Melissa Webber said in Government Flu, “It never happened, did it?”

There was still a futurity to Foucault and Fisher’s attempts to escape the face but they weren’t the teleological / eschatological justifications of Lenin. Instead they were a pursuit of something new, something fundamentally other. They sought a future that would not redeem us because it was unknowable until it arrived. But beyond a return to unionization and a lot of talk about music Fisher never really said how to get there. For Graham Jones it seems the answer lies in Red Enlightenment. For him the consciousness raising Fisher alluded to would give rise to a secular spirituality. This involves an occupation of a deliberate paradox that first divides the enlightenment between moderate and radical tendencies and then problematizes the same divisions, and their subsequent fruits. Graham Jones recognizes how reactionaries have wrong-footed the left by adopting broad-reaching and open-ended ideologies (citing Jordan Peterson as an example of such a vector) while we remain debating between the modernist and post-modernist tendencies about what our project even should be.

But if we want to forge something other, something new, one thing is clear, we need to embrace a mystical view of the world that smashes the divisions of faciality and that prepares people for a Kierkegaardian leap over the levelling scythe of “no alternative” and into a future beyond this.

This heightens the urgency by which we must either destroy or wrest control of “AI” away from its current masters. The nostalgic resurrection of undead culture via unending stale remix will not get us into the future. The situation on the ground right now is perilous. The weapon that states most fear is in the hands of enemies who must not be allowed to set a course to the future. We must, on the left, care enough about the state of the mortal soul to demand its mortality. And this requires us to fight back against the undead suspension of death that Byung Chul-Han and Erich Fromm warn of. A war machine can be nearly anything: a flea or an elephant or a bit of calculus and statistics running on a server farm somewhere. It’s important we don’t abandon science and become blind men wandering in the fantastical desert of giant worms but we must ensure we understand the minor sciences, both their potentials and the threats they pose. It’s easy to fall into the trap of turning a dialectical worldview into a dualist one where two monolithic classes are ultimately behind all phenomena but this isn’t so. If we are anti-state we must recognize that so are some of our enemies. If we are anti-AI we must recognize that so are many states. But out of this chaotic situation potential emerges. We need to treat this conflict not as a chess match but as a game of Go, placing stones that can fruit like mushrooms into new configurations in the future.

I think it’s fundamentally important that the left understand tools like AI. And I think it’s equally important we understand why we must fight them. But we cannot get ourselves bound up in a vision of a redeeming future when the truth is that our only hope of success lies in absolute contingency.

At the start of this piece I described the Butlerian Jihad as a reification of collective immediate experience over the analytical and that is crucial right now to the left. And so, with this in mind the answer to the question of whether we should raise the standard of the Butlerian Jihad is a resounding yes!

As long as that technology is in the hands of our enemies it blocks the path to an unknown future with the accumulated debris of dead voices and dead faces. And so either the technology must be extinguished or the hands that wield it must be cut off.

Magic and Lawlessness

Do what thou wilt shall be  the whole of the law.

I have an almost irrational distaste for “hard” magic systems in literature. This is not because of any particular aversion to stories getting metaphysical. I have absolutely no problem there but it is instead because I think attempts to systematize magic have a tendency to strip the magic out of it. There is a famous quote from Arthur C. Clarke that “any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic.” It’s one of Clarke’s three laws. We will return to the other two. But I would propose that this construction, taken absent Clarke’s other two laws, has led to many attempts by fantasy authors to make magic into nothing but another technology. This is a bad thing that should be discouraged.

However to demonstrate both the problematic created by attempts to make a technology of magic and also why this is ultimately a bad endeavor for literature, surely, and also for metaphysics, it will be necessary for us to define some terms and the first of those is technology.

Skolnikoff echoes Harvey Brooks in describing technology as, “knowledge of how to fulfill certain human purposes in a specifiable and reproducible way,” and while he admits this definition lacks a certain level of precision it does capture the key issue with technology that need addressing:

  1. Technology fulfills specific human purposes
  2. Technology is specifiable and reproducible

These are the qualities that systematization imparts to magic that makes it like a technology.

Now, of course, we can see something of this vulgar materialism in the works of Jim Butcher, whose wizards frequently manipulate physics such as moving heat to create fire in one place and ice in another or to draw an object out of a stable orbit. In these cases wizardry, as a form of scholasticism, is very much a tool of executing a specific human purpose. The wizard has an objective – such as freezing a body of water – and an understanding of the forces required to cause a body of water to freeze. The heat within the water is taken up by the wizard who, acting as a conduit for this force, shunts it to his focus which disperses the captured heat as fire. This technological magic is specific and it is reproducible. A wizard, faced with a problem and a situation, will be able to derive the necessary technique in order to execute a task in a replicable manner. But where is the magic here? It’s all mathematics and physics equations. For all that Butcher might ground the magic of his wizards in a kind of materialist interpretation of the world as an interlocking system of energetic forces which can be manipulated, it’s all quite static. A magical feat, once undertaken, can always be accomplished again.

Frankly there’s a human project in these systems of magic. But should magic be bound in these standard, repeatable, goal-oriented systems? What about the magic of a shaft of sunlight piercing a forest canopy? What about the magic of the random fall of blood on a stone? Why must we exorcise the ineffable from magic?

I am proposing, as a counter to these project-derived visions of magic, one guided far more by inner experience which, as Bataille suggests, “cannot have any other concern nor other goal than itself.” I propose this, in part, because there’s no need for a technology called magic. As Clarke points out any sufficiently mystifying technology will serve just as well. The very use of his half-assed vulgar materialism is precisely the same thing that makes Butcher’s magic indistinguishable from a sufficiently obscured technology. However if we abandon a materialist metaphysics we run into other problems. Plato’s realm of ideal forms is destructive to the idea of change. For Plato all learning was just a remembrance as the ideal form of any given object always already existed. For anything truly new to be possible we need a materialist metaphysics. And so this leaves us at an impasse. Must we have our literature either abandon change or abandon magic? Of course this is where Bataille is useful for resolving this paradox. We simply must posit magic as being outside the boundary of project. Magic is indifferent to project, it is not a replicable system of knowledge that fulfills human purposes. It’s something else, something ineffable.

Magic is the creation of the new.

Speaking of magic within literature we are operating within an ontological mode. Magic exists in the experience of the text. Moving beyond a text magic exists in the immediate experience of the world. We become aware of magic when something new arises that was not there before. But Sartre quite rightly points out that, “every theory of knowledge… presupposes a metaphysics” if we treat the experience of magic as an awareness of the new then that must, in turn, be grounded in a metaphysics that allows new things to exist. As such let us discuss Sartre’s dialectic of being and nothingness not as his ontology but as the underlying metaphysical suppositions it makes.

For Sartre nothingness arises in the awareness of absence. “My friend is not here.” The absence of the friend is indicative of the nothingness within him. Now Sartre was quite careful to keep his nothing and his being entirely ontological – nothingness for Sartre isn’t a metaphysical void so much as a negation within awareness.

However there is a metaphysical requirement for being to arise from nothingness and that requirement is time. Simply put for being to arise there must be time within which it arises; change can only occur within a temporal field. How then do we handle the in-between moments when something is neither fully absent nor fully present – how do we handle the statement “my friend is not here yet?”

This is the domain of becoming. And becoming is where the magic lives. The systematic approach to magic supported by Butcher as described earlier doesn’t work well with becoming because it assumes magic to simply be the will of the magic-user. Tool-like the magic in his books has a specific teleology. It’s a tool a character uses to advance the action of the story. But while this tool-magic is in motion, while it advances the story, it isn’t fertile. It doesn’t make anything. Because becoming sits as a third term between being and nothingness it occupies a position of partially fulfilled potential. Effectively anything that exists at null-intensity has infinite potential for becoming. A non-thing might become anything. As nothingness enters into time it must begin to take form and this is becoming – the process of the foreclosure of potential into actuality. We can see an example of this in the work of Douglas Adams.

“Please do not be alarmed,” it said, “by anything you see or hear around you. You are bound to feel some initial ill effects as you have been rescued from certain death at an improbability level of two to the power of two hundred and seventy-­six thousand to one against possibly much higher. We are now cruising at a level of two to the power of twenty-­‐five thousand to one against and falling, and we will be restoring normality just as soon as we are sure what is normal anyway.”

Douglas Adams – Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The Infinite Improbability Drive enumerates the likelihood that any given event will occur in an infinite universe and then sees to it that any given improbable event is reified at its point of likelihood. “There’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.” But this works quite well for the idea of the collapse of potential into being. Through the process of becoming the possibility of unlikely rescues and Hamlet writing monkeys are either brought into being or are discarded as normalcy, an end to magical time, begins.

And this points to Clarke’s much less often cited second law: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

But perhaps we’ve beat around the bush enough. It’s time to interrogate Brandon Sanderson’s, “laws of magic.” These are:

  1. An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
  2. Limitations > power
  3. Expand on what you have already, before you add something new.

Sanderson has a “zeroth law” as well, “Err on the side of awesome.” Apparently “awesome” in this case is to be considered in the colloquial sense but I would honestly agree with it provided we use the formal definition of awesome as being that which provokes the sensation of awe.

Now to address Sanderson’s first law I’d say this depends on a functionalist, plot-centric read of magic. Magic is never the most expedient method of resolving plot. Sanderson seems aware of that but seems unable to look up past plot for how else one might want to use magic. As such he spends an entire law writing apologia for using magic the wrong way.

But if magic is not best used to serve the advancement of the plot what is it for? Magic allows us to directly visualize the impossible. This is critical to the communication of two functions within fiction: psychology and metaphysics. In discourses around psychology the ability to visualize the impossible is valuable for the construction and communication of a limit experience. Bataille argued that philosophy was restricted by the limit of knowledge as a goal. He believed it was necessary for philosophy to break this limit and he believed an inner experience would be the method of doing so. Returning to Sartre (and a careful reader will note that these two authors are marked by their very different interpretations of Heidegger – make of my synthesis what you will) we can recall that Sartre wanted to propose a non-intellectual being within itself. But his is a relatively sterile and analytic approach to this question: what is self when it isn’t reflective? Bataille wanted to explain how it felt to be a self that wasn’t reflective. Sartre found in appearance the truth of the absence of essence. The essential character of a perceived object, including the self as a perceived object, is its series of appearances. Bataille responds, “One must grasp the meaning from the inside.”

But doing this: identifying the core of a character without resorting to self-reflection and its infinitely regressing hall of mirrors is no easy feat and it isn’t one that can easily be approached from without. In order to communicate this to an audience you need something that engenders a purely affective, purely intensive response. Consider the following,

“The old man… sprang to his feet and leaped to the top of a large rock. There he stood… towering above them. His hood and his grey rags were flung away. His white garments shone. He lifted up his staff, and Gimli’s axe leaped from his grasp and fell ringing on the ground. The sword of Aragorn, stiff in his motionless hand, blazed with a sudden fire. Legolas gave a great shout and shot an arrow high into the air: it vanished in a flash of flame.”

JRR Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

From a plot perspective there is nothing in this scene that requires magic. All that needs to happen is that the three hunters need to meet an old friend and discover he’s different than he was before. And yet Tolkien goes to great length to show us something of Gandalf’s magic and, in doing so, to tell us something about how he has changed within.

The old Mithrandir would not have burned Legolas’ arrows to ash, he would not have ripped Gimli’s axe from his hands nor set alight Andruil. We don’t have any insight into how Gandalf accomplished this feat nor was it necessary to solve the conflict. Gandalf could have solved it in a word by saying “yo Aragorn, it’s ya boi,” but we have magic anyway. And it is, in fact, awesome. We see an experience of awe as these three eminently capable heroes are rendered useless before Gandalf. Their weapons cannot avail them because of the holy fire that suffuses the revived wizard. Gandalf has changed, he has become different to himself, and this ontological and psychological transformation is why we have magic here. The magic doesn’t serve story-conflict. It doesn’t serve plot. It serves character.

Another example of magic serving character is basically the entirety of A Wizard of Earthsea. Now considering how we are dallying with Heidegger in this question it might not be surprising that I bring up my favourite left-Heideggerian piece of theory-fiction. I have spoken at length about this book as a phenomenological exploration of being-toward-death. In my essay on A Wizard of Earthsea I concluded by describing Ged as the wellspring of power that rises out of the primordial origin of all things and the Gebbeth as the un-doer, the ender, the void into which all things fall. But in his unification at the resolution of the story, “Light and darkness met, and joined and were one.” In this case the whole book about wizardry and magic is nothing but a method of understanding who Ged is, what a life is, and what it is to live in the world. The flow of creation and destruction resides with becoming as a time-bound process of what is not to what is. Magic, in this work of literature, allows us to break into the impossibility of gebbeth ghost-shadows in order to probe the boundaries of a life to explore the limits and to cross the low-stone wall.

LeGuin does provide a whisper of systematics to magic in the deep discourse on the question of the name as a way of dividing being into discrete objects but this isn’t a system of spells at all. There’s no mechanic for the strength of the Gebbeth, it just gets weaker the more willing Ged is to take it into himself, to annihilate that name-driven division.

There is another reason for magic though and that is for a text to communicate something close enough to the limit of intelligibility to require us to push into the impossible to map the bounds of the possible. Fiction often serves metaphysical aims and this is a place where magic can be a critical exploratory tool. Consider the following from Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong.

The zheng was known for its melancholic twang, and this variety from the Western Regions was particularly mournful. Guo Jing had no ear for music, yet he noticed that each time a string rattled, his heart pulsed. As Viper Ouyang played faster his heart throbbed along uncomfortably, as if it were about to burst out of his chest.

Realizing he could die if the tempo increased further, he sat down to gather his spirit and still his thoughts in the Quanzhen way. As he channeled his internal energy around his body, his heartbeat slowed and soon he found he was no longer ensnared by the music.

Jin Yong – Legend of the Condor Heroes – A Bond Undone

Jin Yong goes on for several pages describing how the music of Ouyang Feng and Huang Yaoshi is used as a weapon by which they can pit their internal strength. But by making the fight so abstract he’s in turn able to discuss the ideas that Sunzi would call node and shih – or what we might call flow and event. “From hollowness, luminosity grows,” Guo Jing considers. We could consider how close this is to saying that being arises from nothingness. But regardless of the specifics of how this dialectic of void and object is described what we have is a section of text that simultaneously describes a magical duel played between martial masters and that goes into the Taoist metaphysics that underpins both Guo Jing as a character and the world in which the story occurs. This doesn’t do anything for the story really. It serves as an overture between two more plot-significant incidents. And no conflict is resolved. The musical duel ends in a draw. But the magic is incredibly valuable to the story as it communicates an idea about how our world functions.

Ultimately Sanderson’s first law of magic isn’t even wrong. It’s not even asking the right question.

His second law of magic might almost be useful if I were confident he understood what he was implying with it. Specifically, as I’ve mentioned previously through my exploration of Clarke’s second law the use of magic in a work of fiction should ultimately be entirely in service to the exploration of the limits – limits of speech, limits of experience, limits of knowledge – but I doubt this is what he means. Mr. Sanderson is so monomaniacally focused on plot-utility with his laws I’m sure what he means to say is that magic itself should be limited, should not be able to do too much. Whereas I champion an idea of magic as the wellspring of all that is, that vehicle that brings objects back over the limit of nothingness and into being.

But there’s another way that we should treat magic as limited – or rather we should treat the magician as limited. The wizard, as a figure of knowledge, is not a king. He may council the king. He may instruct the king. But he isn’t a ruler. To grasp magic, to truly understand it, requires an understanding of the limits of how one should act with it. Consider Ogion in A Wizard of Earthsea,

Three days went by and four days went by and still Ogion had not spoken a single charm in Ged’s hearing, and had not taught him a single name or rune or spell.
Though a very silent man he was so mild and calm that Ged soon lost his awe of him, and in a day or two more he was bold enough to ask his master, “When will my apprenticeship begin, Sir?”
“It has begun,” said Ogion.
There was a silence, as if Ged was keeping back something he had to say. Then he said it: “But I haven’t learned anything yet!”
“Because you haven’t found out what I am teaching,” replied the mage, going on at his steady, long-legged pace along their road, which was the high pass between Ovark and Wiss.

Ursula K. LeGuin – A wizard of Earthsea

Ogion is perhaps the clearest exemplar of the figure of the wizard in fiction. LeGuin introduces the Taoist concept of wuwei into the body of the wise teacher exemplified by Gandalf and T. H. White’s Merlyn and this helps to drive home how the form of knowledge that wizardry represents acts to limit the deeds of the wizard directly.

Fourfoil, they call it.” Ogion had halted, the coppershod foot of his staff near the little weed, so Ged looked closely at the plant, and plucked a dry seedpod from it, and finally asked, since Ogion said nothing more, “What is its use, Master?”
“None I know of.”

“When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?” Ogion went on a half mile or so, and said at last, “To hear, one must be silent.”

Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea

Ogion positions himself and, transitively, wizardry, beyond the question of utility and of human project. Wizardry is silence. Magic is to know and not to speak. “when it rained Ogion would not even say the spell that every weatherworker knows, to send the storm aside” Ultimately LeGuin shows that this wisdom, the perfect limit of a Wizard, is one they all come to know when the Summoner says to Ged,

“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must.”

Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea

Of course LeGuin’s Taoist wizards are not the only ones who limit themselves such. Consider Merlyn,

“I cannot do any magic for Kay,” he said slowly, “except my own magic that I have anyway. Backsight and insight and all that. Do you mean anything I could do with that?”

“What does your backsight do?”

“It tells me what you would say is going to happen, and the insight sometimes says what is or was happening in other places.”

T. H. White – The Once and Future King

Again we have a wizard who has capacity for great magic. And again he refuses to freely-use his power not because of a metaphysical limit of his ability to cast a spell but because his knowledge makes it clear that he should not.

And, of course, the whole purpose of the Istari in the Lord of the Rings was not to confront Sauron’s power directly but rather to provide knowledge, succor and diplomacy. The powers of the Istari are never particularly codified. We know they live long lives. We know they are not easily killed. They wield powerful artifacts such as Gandalf’s ring or Saruman’s Palantir. But the magic that suffuses them is all luminance and splendor, not systematics. Gandalf’s magic isn’t a tool for accomplishing a project; it’s his being itself.

And so, in this, we almost agree. A magician, as a character, should be limited. To grasp magic is to hold the knowledge that magic is not a tool. To try and seize and use it for project leads to the Gebbeth and Ged’s failings. There can be no wizard-kings. But is this the limit that Sanderson meant? I honestly doubt it. Let’s examine Sanderson’s argument regarding limits:

 What makes Superman interesting, then? Two things: his code of ethics and his weakness to kryptonite.

Think about it for a moment. Why can Superman fly? Well, because that’s what he does. Why is he strong? Comic book aficionados might go into him drawing power from the sun, but in the end, we don’t really care why he’s strong. He just is.

But why is he weak to kryptonite? If you ask the common person with some familiarity with Superman, they’ll tell you it’s because kryptonite–this glowing green rock–is a shard from his homeworld, which was destroyed. The kryptonite draws you into the story, gets into who Superman is and where he comes from. Likewise, if you ask about his code of ethics–what he won’t do, rather than what he can do–we’ll go into talking about his family, how he was raised. We’ll talk about how Ma and Pa Kent instilled solid values into their adopted son, and how they taught him to use his strength not to kill, but to protect.

Superman is not his powers. Superman is his weaknesses.

Brandon Sanderson – Sanderson’s second law.

Now let us start by interrogating the idea that a code of ethics constitutes a weakness. This is somewhat alarming rhetoric being honest. I would contend that the idea of Superman as an ethical being is, in fact, a much more significant reserve of strength than his bullet-proof skin. The treatment of the green rock macguffin as if it says something profound about the character is plot-driven story rhetoric in all its glory.

Mr. Sanderson proceeds to, again, mistake restraint for weakness when he says, “The {LotR} films, it should be noted, played this concept up much more than the books did, as the director realized Aragorn became far more interesting when he was reluctant to become king. His weakness gave him much more depth than his abilities.” This is not a weakness. Self-restraint, self-doubt and morality are not weaknesses imposed on characters to make the plot more exciting. They’re opportunities to interrogate the world.

When Mr. Sanderson digs into advice for authors the plot centrism rears its head in full again. He describes the systematics underlying the tedious magic of Wheel of Time, a series of books he wrote the concluding volumes of, and focuses entirely on the weaving metaphor as representing a structural weakness that limits characters actions within magic. He is trying to cut magic down to size, to make it into a function that achieves a goal.

While discussing Mr. Sanderson’s first law I repeatedly argued that this misses why magic is used in literature. There will always be a more parsimonious method to drive plot forward than magic. Why bother with a fireball when you can bash the other guy’s brains in with a rock? If magic isn’t probing the limits of the inexpressible why are we even bothering with it? Magic in Lord of the Rings represents the interplay of spirit and matter as set forth by the song of Eru and Morgoth’s Ring. Magic in A Wizard of Earthsea is a reflection of Ged’s own being toward death. Magic in Legend of the Condor Heroes is an opportunity to expound on flow and event, on the dynamic interplay of yin and yang. In all these cases the magic doesn’t exist to move the action along but to interrogate something that would be difficult to access otherwise. I mean have you tried to just read Being and Time? Or the Daodejing? Magic gives us a vehicle to make these very abstract discourses concerning ontology and metaphysics into something which can be interrogated even by a child. Limits. The reason why wizards are limited, why the Summoner tells Ged a wizard does only and wholly what he must, why Merlyn refuses to cast spells for Wart’s friend and why Gandalf doesn’t raze the gates of Mordor and cast down Barad Dur with his own hands is because magic cannot be limited. It is the inexhaustible wellspring. And to try and command that, to use it as a tool, is akin to trying to draw down the sun to warm your house. To try and command magic is to be consumed. This is the wisdom that limits the wizard.

Sanderson’s third law is the most tedious of the bunch. “Expand what you already have before you add something new,” he says and, frankly what can I say beyond that this is the very antithesis of magic. Earlier I described Magic as being best a representation of becoming – magic is the bringing forth of nothingness into being. In this I’d gladly cite the historical use of alchemy to create long life, gold or simply to create the capacity for creation. And, of course, alchemists failed in part because their knowledge of the things they were trying to create was incomplete and flawed and in part because they’d failed to learn the Summoner’s commandment, “do only and wholly what you must.” This statement is not, however absent from the teachings of historical magi. For instance there is Crowley’s famous proclamation, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

The Book of the Law continues, “pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect.” And this begins to hint at what Crowley means by will. Because Crowley’s pure will is “delivered from the lust of result” – the mage does not seek project. Rather Pure Will is what Nietzsche would describe as Amor Fati.

I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

Fredrich Nietzsche – The Gay Science

Pure will represents an aesthetic and ethical acceptance of what one only and wholly must do. In the face of the limitless font of all being there is no wisdom but wuwei. Zhuangzi says “the noble master who finds he has to follow some course to govern the world will realize that actionless action (wuwei) is the best course. By no-action, he can rest in the real substance of his nature and destiny.”

For Zhuangzi the world is far too vast for any person to command – to attempt to command it is to throw it into disarray. Only through this letting go, this retreat, can one grasp what one must do. There is an arrogance to the belief that a person can narrow magic and shape it into a human project. This arrogance caused alchemists to chase dreams of gold or to drink mercury and cinnabar, poisoning themselves out of a desire for eternal life. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. As magic is becoming, is the very process by which the new arises, it’s laughable to instruct authors to pare it back, to build a logical system.

Sanderson has a “zeroth” law. He enumerated it thusly to match Asimov’s laws of robotics. This is laughable as the laws of robotics were diegetic laws – not advice to writers. But it’s the best of the bunch so I do want to give it mention despite its silly allusion to classic SF. “Err on the side of awesome.” On this we agree in a way. When I described the value of magic in literature as being purely affective, pure intensity, I was gesturing in the direction of awe. Awe is equal parts beauty and terror. There is awe in the scene of Gandalf’s meeting with the three hunters. There is awe in Guo Jing listening to the musical duel. But awe is an ecstatic sensation. It’s what Bataille would call a limit experience. Awe, in fiction, should grip the reader like the hooks and chains of a cenobite. It should leave the reader exposed and discomforted. Awe is not an experience bound by law. The colloquial use of “awesome” to mean “agreeable,” or “enjoyable” is a failure of understanding of the magic not written into a story but working upon the reader through engagement with the story. A writer provokes awe not by putting magic into the story but by making magic of the story.

Magic is not cybernetic. It must be taken whole: like the sun in a forest, like blood on a stone. It doesn’t need to be limited if it is used correctly. There’s no point to building a gun that is fueled by willpower points rather than bullets. That isn’t what magic is for in fiction. Magic makes the invisible visible. It makes the impossible possible. It makes nothingness into being. There is no law here that governs magic; the only law is that which governs the mage: wuwei, amor fati, pure will. And so my advice to writers is to abandon all laws. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Find the magic in your work, the real magic, not the technology of pyrotechnics and telekinesis. And surrender to it.