13 Sep 2020
Messy, speculative dispatches from an alien encounter…
On a visit up to Scotland two weeks ago to see Nick, we, utterly accidentally, came across alien territory: territory all the more alien for being so absolutely earthly.
Vast Martian expanses of rusty red rock; the half-destroyed 14th century Tantallon Castle on the horizon; a small harbour filled with grubby, viscous sea foam; an eerily neat pile of slimy seaweed tentacles; a brooding, apocalyptic sky… It was all utterly unhomely, utterly untimely: simultaneously before and after the end of the world, in and out of time, on and off this planet.
We were lost for words, revelling in this place’s unanswerable secrets. This place was literally, not at all metaphorically, psychedelic.
Retroactively, we discovered this place was called Seacliff – but all accounts of it seem to domesticate it or make it cosy, effacing its eerie cosmic energy. It’s all compartmentalised and explained away: all tales of war games, private beaches and the wealthy families who own them, tourists and dogwalkers, the local crab fisherman who uses the harbour.
Nice try, but the rocks speak for themselves. Seacliff is far more weird, trippy and unsettling than any of these authorities could ever admit. The question remains though: why?
Maybe it’s all just sublimity. The sublime, as theorised by many philosophers including Kant and Burke, refers to a kind of objective, absolute magnitude that is of such a quantity that it overwhelms all our faculties of comprehension. Think of, say, the Grand Canyon, or the view of Earth from the Moon, or the waves continually crashing against overhanging cliffs: this is the sublime – a grand magnitude that leaves our mouths agape, lost for words (for such crude human inventions cannot possibly do it justice). As this demonstrates, the sublime lies beyond such sense-faculties – it is supersensible, a surplus or leftover that cannot be captured, explained, and operationalised.
The feeling of the sublime, however, doesn’t totally capture the affect evoked at Seacliff. Sublimity seems to suggest a kind of separation between the exorbitant, excessive sublime object and the limited subject-interior that is submitted to, and has to adapt to, it. But the feeling at Seacliff wasn’t exactly about some grand exterior object that we could merely gawk up at – instead, it was about a vast exteriority that was revealed to have been “in” us from the beginning. This was the unsettling – and psychedelic – thing about Seacliff and its cooled volcanic landscapes: rupturing through the surface-level tension of our everyday experiences, it seemed to expose some traumatic, repressed core that had been underlying them this whole time, without us noticing. The most internal became the most external…
Consequently, while there certainly was a feeling of the sublime at Seacliff, this feeling needs to be qualified and specified. Robin Mackay has provided useful resources in this regard, with him having argued that the experience of the sublime has the structure of a trauma: ‘an event that cannot itself be registered within experience, but which has ramifications in experience’1. The “experience” of the sublime is not far from that of the traumatic: both concern exterior events that exceed our faculties for understanding and compartmentalising them. Thinking the sublime in line with trauma, then, might help us better specify the particular psychological feeling that was evoked for Nick, Alex and I at Seacliff.
What such thinking uncovers is a continuity between (“outside”) sublime geological formations and (“inside”) human psychological states, and it is precisely this continuum which is evoked by Mackay’s notion of geotrauma, developed from the Ccru and most explicitly worked out in “A Brief History of Geotruma”. Before we dive into geotrauma, let’s consider trauma as it is classically conceived in psychology/psychoanalysis. As various psychoanalysts have made clear, trauma relates to a rupturing interface between “inside” and “outside”, between the “interior” of the human organism and some external sensation that the organism is unable to integrate and synthesise with the rest of their experiences. Trauma, then, is the very slash (/) in inside/outside, an interface between the two involving not just an excessive outside but also the internalisation of this outside into a traumatic recurring memory-trace2. Freud makes this clear in his (highly speculative) Beyond the Pleasure Principle:
Such external excitations as are strong enough to break through the barrier against stimuli we call traumatic. In my opinion the concept of trauma involves such a relationship to an otherwise efficacious barrier. An occurrence such as an external trauma will undoubtedly provoke a very extensive disturbance in the workings of the energy of the organism, and will set in motion every kind of protective measure. But the pleasure-principle is to begin with put out of action here. The flooding of the psychic apparatus with large masses of stimuli can no longer be prevented: on the contrary, another task presents itself—to bring the stimulus under control, to bind in the psyche the stimulus mass that has broken its way in, so as to bring about a discharge of it.3
Mackay’s concept of “geotrauma”, however, is meant to complicate or extend such classical psychoanalytic theories of trauma. The problem with Freud’s account of trauma here, for example, is that it assumes trauma only comes after the “internal” human organism has been formed: in this schema, the human develops and grows up in a non-traumatic fashion, and then, tragically, has a traumatic encounter. Trauma takes the form of an exorbitant “external stimulus” that overwhelms the psyche, which, in a desperate attempt to control and temper the excess stimulus, “binds” itself to the “stimulus mass that has broken its way in” in order to domesticate it, and this “binding” thus becomes the source of, for instance, the flashbacks commonly associated with PTSD. (This is Freud’s take on it, at least.) Now, clearly, lots of trauma does function like this, as the difficult and life-altering experiences of people with trauma disorders such as PTSD attest to. Consequently, geotrauma should not be thought of as a “replacement” for such psychological trauma, but an extension of it: it is an attempt to think trauma outside the frame of the human or the psychological. Or, in an alternative wording, the concept of geotrauma is meant to emphasise the exteriority of trauma to human empirical experience, and thereby its connections to outside territorial, geological and cosmic milieus.
The insides/outsides of geotrauma here no longer necessarily concern the human – the “inside” is no longer strictly the human organism. Instead, trauma is a generalised incision that cuts out of a wider field (i.e. an “outside”) a locality or region (an “inside”). An incision, a cut, a slash (/): trauma becomes not just a property of humans, but the cosmos as a whole.
This is the approach of Reza Negarestani, at least, who outlines such a perspective on geotrauma in his notable essay “On the Revolutionary Earth”4:
Since there is no single or isolated psychic trauma (all traumas are nested), there is no psychic trauma without an organic trauma and no organic trauma without a terrestrial trauma that in turn is deepened into open cosmic vistas. Here, trauma should be understood not as what is experienced but as a form of cut made by the real or the absolute in its own unified order; a cut that brings about the possibility of a localized horizon and a singular but interconnected ‘point of view’.
Commenting on this, Mackay adds:
The image here is of a radically open continuum within which regional horizons are formed as a function of trauma, and which each, far from repelling it through their myopia, carry within themselves, as traces, as myopically-focalised reflections of the universal continuum, the traces of trauma.
This is the very meaning of the Copernican trajectory. Ultimately, our interiority is compromised not by the initial shock of being decentred, but when we realise that the organic compounds that subtend life and thought are synthesized from the same stardust as the sun and planets. Trauma is an inner labyrinth, not a shock from the outside.5
Here, the usual psycho-therapeutic approach to trauma is inverted – rather than being an aberration from “normal” and healthy mental functioning of human subjects, trauma becomes constitutive of the subject as such: it is only through a traumatic cut into, and in a sense a wretched separation from, what Negarestani calls the “universal absolute” or “geocosmic continuum”, that we become an individual subject with our own particular experiences. Equivalently, the formation of particular regional landscapes is also the result of a geotrauma: the volcanic scars of Seacliff, for instance, were only formed through (most likely) the eruption of the extinct volcano Arthur’s Seat in nearby Edinburgh around 340 million years ago. And what is an e-rupt-ion if not a rupture, a geotraumatic cut, that transplants Earth’s molten alien insides onto its surface? A scar recording an interface between inside and outside?
If, as Carl Sagan says, we are “made of star stuff”, then this enfolding of cosmic material into the form of the human organism could only have been a geotraumatic process, a traumatic splicing out of an exterior milieu particular materials that became components of a regional “interior”. Consequently, as Negarestani states, trauma runs all the way down – right to the centre of the Earth, and beyond. For, in the words of the Ccru’s Professor Barker, the molten core of the Earth constitutes “an insulated reservoir of primal exogeneous trauma”, functioning as a component of the “Geocosmic Unconscious”. Buried deep “within” (but also, by virtue of such depth, “outside”) us as earthly creatures is a geotraumatic core with, ultimately, no end. Get the alignments right and anyone can channel it, feel it.6
Let’s get back to Seacliff to ground these abstract discussions a bit. I initially asked why it was that Seacliff was so psychedelic, and we are now in a position to provisionally answer this question, using the two diagrams below as a guide:
Let us begin with the first “non-psychedelic/sublime” diagram, which will help us understand the second. This is the situation we usually find ourselves in in our everyday lives: the outside world presents itself as an overwhelming sea of complexity that we do not understand and seem only able to pick up isolated bits of. In such a situation, our relation to this outside world (in Negarestani’s terms, our “dialectical synthesis” with it) is one of an economical “binding”. We take bits of it and try and integrate such things into our lives, bring them into our protected “interior”, while expelling everything else as the “outside” – thereby shoring up the idea of a special interior that must be defended from an exorbitant and separate exterior. Always returning to the self as a protected ground, Negerastani terms such a mode of synthesis a “counter-revolutionary trap”, and we can agree that, at the very least, it is resolutely not psychedelic or sublime.
This helps clarify what is special about the second “psychedelic/sublime” diagram, which depicts our experiences at Seacliff. By virtue of its alien yet utterly earthly – i.e. xenogeological – landscapes dripping in deep time, Seacliff acted as a geotraumatic mediator which did not prompt a defensive “return to self” but rather allowed us to correctly “nest” our “selves” within an exterior milieu. (We didn’t return to the self, but turned it inside out.) The mode of synthesis here, represented by the pink double arrows, was one of unfolding rather than protective binding. Arrow #2, which represents Seacliff’s relationship to its “exterior”7 Earth from which it was birthed, is central here. Unlike many of the landscapes we traverse and inhabit, particularly in urban areas, Seacliff bares naked its formation from currents both beneath and above the Earth’s surface, most visibly demonstrated by its vistas of cooled volcanic material from millions of years ago. If the urban is predicated on a repression of such geotraumas, Seacliff’s scars are plain to see, acting as portals opening out onto an Outside that is simultaneously, in a sense, “inside” us, if unrecognised.
By virtue of all this, a line of flight was opened up, shown by the asterisk (*), and enabling arrow #1, which represents Nick, Alex and I’s psychedelic/sublime experience of (or “synthesis with”) Seacliff, to occur. Our interactions with Seacliff were tactile, exploratory and immersive, climbing up the rocks, feeling them crumble between our fingers, and taking in the view of the ocean and surrounding cliffs. (This, again, was in stark contrast with the rigid compartmentalisation and surveillance of urban environments.) By engaging so closely and deeply with it, we were able to “connect” our engagement with Seacliff with the geotrauma that birthed it hundreds of millions of years ago. Rather than closing ranks around our individual selves, we found ourselves facing outwards on a path towards Negerastani’s “universal absolute”. What we felt at Seacliff were not “our” feelings, but a geotraumatic trace of the Earth’s howl 340 million years ago feeling its way through us.
Our experiences at Seacliff, then, are perhaps an example of what Negarestani calls a “revolutionary” approach to trauma(tic synthesis). As he details in the closing passages of “On the Revolutionary Earth”:
The obligation of the revolutionary subject with regard to exporting the revolution is not to shun traumas of capitalism and fundamentalism, since this refusal or disavowal contributes to the strategy of capitalism and fundamentalism in isolating traumas, forces and resources in order to govern and monopolize them within this or that world. On the contrary, the obligation of the revolutionary subject is to absorb and interiorize traumas so as to expose ‘isolated traumas’ (this or that regional world), interconnect them to its regional horizon and widen them across the geocosmic continuum and deep into the cosmic exteriority. Modern man is a surgeon who does not amputate himself from the worlds of capitalism and religion. Instead, he transplants himself and these worlds inside each other in order to reconnect his actual regional horizon (cohabited with capitalism and fundamentalism) once again to the freedom of absolute depths.
A Geotraumatic Coda…: If there was a song to fit the mood of Seacliff, it was undoubtedly Sun Ra’s “It’s After the End of the World”. Seacliff’s untimely inhuman xenogeology reminds us that extinction is not the end but an end (of a species, planet, other particularity). Earth has, after all, already experienced multiple extinction events in its history, which have in the grand scheme of things been essential to the evolution of humans to the point where we are today. Consequently, what Seacliff forces us to confront is precisely what Sun Ra’s refrain states: it’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet? This isn’t to celebrate extinction, of course, but to force us to confront the geotraumatic fact that we are, in a sense, made of such extinctions, the traces of such extinctions…
Robin Mackay, “Correlation, Contingency, Trauma”, 2011. Available here: http://readthis.wtf/writing/correlation-contingency-trauma/ ↩
Robin Mackay, “Correlation, Contingency, Trauma”, 2011. Available here: http://readthis.wtf/writing/correlation-contingency-trauma/ ↩
I know this has been a pretty rambling and verbose blog post – certainly not one of my clearest, best, or well-written – but the reason I’ve persevered with it is because it stems from that truly eerie experience at Seacliff that I felt with my whole body, and I am still trying to make sense of. ↩
This whole piece has been about investigating what we really mean by “inside” and “outside”. By this point, the words have been detached from their usual meanings and qualified, and this should be remembered. The Earth is of course, in a certain sense, not at all exterior to Seacliff – Seacliff is (on) the Earth. But recall we are referring to the logic of nesting, as shown by the diagram. Earth is “both” exterior and interior to Seacliff. ↩