The Conspiracy against the Human Race, by Thomas Ligotti Rothdas book review RSS
3.0 Stars

I am a meat popsicle

Reading this book reminded me of the old joke about two mid-westerners who meet and start chatting. They happily realize that they are both Protestants, they chat more and realize they are both Baptists, they chat more & more and follow down the pathways of schism and reform, realizing they both belong to the exact same minuscule branch of their religion... up until the very last branch where it turns out one belongs to the Reformation of 1879 while the other belongs to the Reformation of 1915. They then turn on each other as bitter enemies.

Which is to say that I agree with a lot of what Ligotti writes, and it is only at the last steps that I have strong disagreements with him. Being is consciousness? Check. Our material substrate is inevitably decaying towards pain and death? Check. Our conception of a unitary and self-directing personhood is largely illusory? Check. Our reasoning is strongly psychologically motivated? Check. Life endlessly feasts on itself, a continuous brutal process played out in a thin scum across the surface of a tiny rock in an infinite and meaningless void? Obviously. So we agree on all of these factual points, only to diverge on how to contextualize them, and the proper reaction to them.

So, in more detail, Ligotti's central metaphor for his complaint and for describing humanity's existence is that of the horror-movie puppet, a creature that should not be alive but is alive, a chunk of base matter given an uncanny consciousness. To Ligotti the proper reaction to human consciousness is an unsettled horror, both that there is consciousness housed in matter, and that this consciousness allows us to apprehend the fundamentally negative nature of the world we exist in. So to Ligotti consciousness, a random evolutionary by-product, is a tragic event in the course of our world as it opens up doors of terror and suffering that were previously closed. In his view the proper action would be to re-seal these doors by letting the human race go extinct. To a certain extent he is not wrong in his negative reaction, in the same way that if someone says that cilantro tastes bad to them they are not wrong. It is a subjective statement of taste that you can't really gainsay from the outside. So I fully believe that this is Ligotti's aesthetic reaction to the world, and that there are probably dozens of other people in the world who feel the same way.

And now begins the part where I criticize the book.

First, the metaphor of the horror-movie puppet. Ligotti says that the puppet is horrifying because it is uncanny; I would say that the puppet is horrifying because it will hide under your furniture and then rush out and stab you with a knife. Without the stabbing aspect, the puppet is not half so scary. There are plenty of puppet-figures that we view with affection, e.g. the Nadja-puppet from What we do in the Shadows, Johnny-5 from Short Circuit, and most of the robots from Star Wars and other sci-fi. We are perfectly fine with base matter given life, we just need to know that it is not going to suddenly stab us. Ditto with the other examples Ligotti lists, of actual humans with physical/mental issues that make them behave in weird ways. The scary thing about these conditions is not that they are uncanny, it is that they are uncertain & potentially dangerous, and we are no longer able to read or predict the other person's actions. (Edit: Science backs me up on this! They did an extensive survey, and one of the things that makes clowns so scary is the inability to read their emotional cues,due to their misleading makeup) This make the situation fraught and carries a constant risk of violence, which is half of what makes people scared or anxious when dealing with health issues that cause people to behave abnormally.

Second, the suffering. Ligotti lists suffering as one of the reasons for human extinction, but either I don't understand his moral calculus, or he is personally not doing a good job of achieving a decent suffering-to-pleasure ratio. I think for most people, we consider a certain amount of suffering a reasonable trade for a certain amount of life and pleasure. E.g. say that you were to live as long as you wanted in a beautiful alpine resort, however once every 500 years you would fall while skiing and painfully break your arm. This is a good trade? It seems like a good trade, and that the pain of breaking your arm is outweighed by all the other positive experiences you have. And if you were to look back at a life of 3000 years of alpine vacation, you wouldn't really describe is as a bad or painful life full of arm breaking, but rather an overall pleasant one. You can envision other deals with less favorable exchange ratios, where eventually the ratio would be bad enough that most people would be like "yeah, euthanize me please". But in general, especially in the modern day, especially in the rich West, it seems like we have a pretty good ratio, with at least moderate hopes of it getting better. So this part didn't really land for me, and I did not understand the argument that because some suffering is unavoidable, that therefor life as a whole was not worth it.

Third, depression. Ligotti writes a brief but I think quite astute description of depression, and how the very nature of thought and consciousness and the world is different there than it is in "normal" consciousness. And he uses this as an example of how life is fundamentally negative, if only we could see it. I think the experience of depression is instead a hopeful sign? In that if you can conceive of a second fundamental type of consciousness, where the very ground of existence is altered, why not a third or a fourth or a trillionth type of consciousness? Especially for someone like Ligotti, who dis-enjoys both baseline consciousness and depression consciousness, this understanding that there exists entirely different ground seems like a sign that he should do further exploring and possibly psychonaut his way to greener pastures. In a later section Ligotti dumps on transhumanism as another false hope, but to me that has always been the real appeal of that -ism, that through relatively minor alterations to brain organization we could enable new or more sustained states of consciousness rather than sticking with what evolution seems to have landed us on. (e.g. as one small example, the sustained states of transcendental bliss talked about by Segal in her book)

Fourth, the nature of the world. Ligotti argues for a Schopenhauerian view, that there is "black life" behind all things and animating the world. Ligotti brings this up numerous times, of an unsettling presence behind the curtain, or a hidden nature in the world, of which we receive glimpses but shy away from. To that I would say: bro, it's fine. Yes we feast on ourselves, yes there is an endless web of negative meaning, but the proper response to this understanding is a joy and a peace of knowing yourself to be a part of this vast system, that you are connected to all things through it, that it will consume you just like has consumed countless trillions of others. I've read Christians talking about the comfort of knowing that the liturgy they experience in church is the same one experienced by their parents and their parents before them, going back in an unbroken tradition for hundreds of years. How much more comforting to know that you are part of a tradition going back hundreds of millions of years!

Or for another take, we could go to Nietzsche and one of his criticisms of Christianity (I'm not a Nietzsche scholar, if I have got this completely wrong don't @ me), that Christianity looks at this entire vast creation and human life and human desire, and then stamps its foot and says "no, you are wrong". Charitably, this could be viewed as a delightful degree of chutzpah, less charitably, as a sort of pettish insanity and absurdity and smallness. In the same vein, we could look at Ligotti looking at the world, where he recognizes the vastness behind everything, and he says "ugh, I don't like it." Maybe the problem is with you dude, maybe *you* should work on changing your own mindset. Black life matters.

Oh, while we're on Nietzsche, Ligotti does have a very funny if not entirely accurate chapter on him. Ligotti does seem to misunderstand eternal re-occurrence, it's supposed to be a thought experiment or mental exercise, not a statement of actual fact. I've seen this confusion in a lot of other places, hopefully that doesn't just mean that I am misundestanding it.

And finally, to conclude the complaining, let me just toss out a grab-bag of other issues, e.g. the book is in many ways a complete mess, as it is this weird combination of philosophical screed + survey of related philosophical writing + survey of weird fiction. It doesn't so much make a continued and developed philosophical argument as it does collect a variety of related and highly opinionated thoughts that the author has had and then sort of list these thoughts out one by one. The language and reasoning is often extremely sloppy, and it often wobbles quite close to the line of "too edgy and cringy to read".

Still! Despite everything above, and despite disagreeing with huge chunks of the book, I do have a fundamental affection for it. While I disagree with the final take, the book still gets right things that 99% of books simply don't. And some of its references (e.g. Segal, Zapffe, parts of Schopenhauer) seem interesting and worth looking into more. This book could have been better, but it also could have been much, much worse.
From one of Ligotti's boardgame prototypes

(Edit: oh right, not sure where to put it, but a nice Zapffe bit: "Communism and psychoanalysis, however incommensurable otherwise, both attempt by novel means to vary the old escape anew; applying, respectively violence and guile to make humans biologically fit by ensnaring their critical surplus of cognition. The idea, in either case, is uncannily logical. But again, it cannot yield a final solution. Though a deliberate degeneration to a move viable nadir may certainly save the species in the short run, it will be its nature be unable to find peace in such resignation, or indeed any peace at all..." Interesting stuff, basically arguing that you just need to let these things simmer for a while before you will come around to Ligotti's viewpoint.