Dark Nights of the Universe
Daniel Colucciello Barber, Alexander Galloway, Nicola Masciandaro, and Eugene Thacker
Reviewed by Hunter Braithwaite
The occasion for this text was a four-night gathering in which each contributor gave a talk about hermeticism and Laruelle’s work. A version of each lecture is published here. But it is perhaps another, more tangential occasion that equally colors this work: that of the original text’s translation. “Du Noir Univers” was first translated for an exhibition catalogue for Hyun Soo Choi’s black paintings in 1991. So while the true concerns of “On the Black Universe: In the Human Foundations of Color” are ontological, it is perhaps forgivable to approach it aesthetically. The cover is printed black on black, and the text interspersed with stills from Aaron Metté’s 2012 video which shares the same title as Laruelle’s essay. It looks at home on Mayhem’s merch table.
Laruelle’s essay is four sections of aphoristic assertions about the universe, blackness, and the shortcomings of philosophy. Reprinted in the back of the book, the essay is helps to contextualize the four essays, which often use single lines to launch lengthy and divergent passages.
The book begins with Eugene Thacker’s “Remote: The Forgetting of the World.” Thacker, who teaches in the Media Studies department of The New School starts with a brief cartographic assessment of the “terrain” of Laruelle’s argument. The text begins by slicing the Real into three sections: the World, which we inhabit and thus cares about us; the Earth, which is a hunk of floating rock indifferent to the anthropoids diddling around on its crust; and the Universe, which is so vast that it cannot be understood by reason, only passion, and is thus paradoxically the most remote and the closest to home. Seeking his own terrain in which to set his essay, Thacker finds the conflation of near and far in Meister Eckhart’s “inmost desert.”
This leads him to the life of St. Anthony, and to the struggles and salvations of other desert hermits. Laruelle states that, “The Remote is accessible to us at each of its points.” The geographic potential of this portable Remote has dried up in modern times, Thacker muses about how Google Maps has problematized the virtues of hermitage, including hesychia, defined by 14th-century monk Gregory Palamas “as that stillness or quiet that is arrived at through an ongoing, negative prayer, stripping away all proximal or distal relations, a prayer of remoteness.” That a point begins with a smartphone application and ends with a 14th-century monk is one of the most exciting and enervating qualities of the book. In suturing not only disciplines, but millennia, the book’s four authors create a critical Frankenstein.
Next is “Whylessness: The Universe is Deaf and Blind,” by Daniel Colucciello Barber, which concerns itself with Laruelle’s line, “In the beginning there is Black—man and Universe, rather than philosopher and World.” The Christian echo of this statement is not lost on Barber, who is currently a Religious Studies Fellow at the ICI in Berlin. An impressive excavation takes place, one that starts, almost humorously, with questions regarding when it all started. We begin, the beginning tells us, only with the beginning—and yet the beginning compares itself to a time without beginning, a time before beginning, a time that, the beginning tells us, does not count (pg. 19). I bring that sentence up because its conversational equipoise runs throughout much of the essay. Moving from Eckhart up through Reza Negarestani’s reading of Noah, Barber pulls off a bipartite discussion of Laruelle’s text and the books of Genesis and John.
If Barber’s essay concerns itself with the first three words of that Laruelle line (“In the beginning”), Nicola Masciandaro claims the second three (“there is Black”). His “Secret: No Light Has Ever Seen the Black Universe” is the longest, and it is the most opaque. His essay concerns itself with that which cannot be known. This is the core of Laruelle’s argument, but it is also that which exists outside of it. “The rigor of secret is the ruthlessness of the Real, its inexorable inevitable impossibility.” Secret is used throughout¬—no the or a—as it means “secret itself, without definite or indefinite article, neither singular or plural, the true object of the mystical subject, who is named by Dionysius in the Mystical Theology as ‘neither oneself or someone else.’”
The final piece is Alexander Galloway’s “Rocket: Present at Every Point of the Remote,” which reads as a cultural-studies fueled coda for the other essays. Memorably, “Rocket” parses Laruelle’s notion of blackness as something that is not opposed to light, not conscripted in the same system of enlightenment or obfuscation, but of an entirely different order altogether. He starts with listing “great explorations of black in art:” Ad Reinhardt, Stan Brakhage, Guy Debord’s “Howls for Sade”—before picking them apart. Black is somewhere else entirely. Near the end, Galloway comments on black’s nominal relationship to vision. “If you open your eyes part way you see white, but if you open them all the way you see black.” This paradox of accepting, of knowing, the inconceivable, runs throughout Dark Nights of the Universe. “See black!” Laruelle’s essay ends. “Not that all your suns have fallen—they have since reappeared, only slightly dimmer—but Black is the ‘color’ that falls eternally from the Universe onto your earth.”
A slim volume, Dark Nights of the Universe is unwieldy in scope and reference. Each sentence, aphoristic in its own style, acts as a footnote for another text, which leads to another. But although at times bewildering, it is also invigorating. One imagines the history of western thought as a frozen cadaver, cryosectioned, and then left to melt. (These images are not morose for nothing, both the book’s design and its repeated references to H.P. Lovecraft beg for a science-fictional interpretation.) As the different fluids and humors run together, they create something incomprehensible, yet splendid and variegated.