On Reza Negarestani’s ‘Undercover Softness’

Response to Reza Negarestani’s presentation on decay at Goldsmiths during his first visit to London in 2006

In what is considered Plato’s most penetrating examination of the theory of Ideas—that is, the theory of worldly actualities as copies of eternal abstract essences—the Parmenides, Socrates is driven to ask whether the power of such a theory does not break down if we have to consider that even ‘vile and paltry things’ such as hair and dirt have their own Idea. At this point, Socrates admits, ‘I fall into a black pit of confusion’. I propose to read Negarestani’s formalisation of decay—and undoubtedly this amounts to a tangential reading or a ‘reterritorialization’ on familiar philosophical ground, if not (I hope) a betrayal of Negarestani’s intentions—as a contribution to the theory of Ideas which, far from capitulating to it as aporia, looks directly into the black pit.

In decay, a construction reveals its Ideal form according to itself—we might say the Idea it has of itself: an abstraction which is not that of any design, geometrical abstraction, or signifier. For a construction neither analyses itself in terms of its primary elements—it is not pulverized to dust nor dissembled unit by unit, brick by brick—nor does it follow the abstractive schemas through which it may have been conceived—geometrical, distributive, functional, etc. Rather, as construction, it implicates a proper material destiny, so that its ‘ascent’ to the Idea is a process each moment of whose unfolding inflects the next. The decayed construction reveals what is proper to it beyond the accidents of its conception so that what is most proper (the Idea) is not the origin, but comes last of all. In line with Virilio’s dictum that every technological invention is the invention of a new disaster, then, to construct is always to construct untold infinities of lines of decay, an exquisite declension of virtualities.

To construct is to open up paths to an Ideal Form in decay. The two directions, the abstraction and expression of decay, will unveil a fate indifferent to design, a dynamic ideality: dissolving apparent discontinuities, revealing singularities where there seemed to be homogeneity; developing minute differences in material structure into monstrous excrescences. If the imposition of a form always implies thresholds of tolerance, in decay everything that was tolerated returns to repudiate the formal imposition. A new order is asserted. The outer casing sags and falls first, or else surfaces survive whilst substance perishes: One of Hieronymous Bosch’s repeated motifs is of the yawning carapace of a fruit’s skin surviving the liquefaction of its flesh, harbouring anomalous creatures or spouting forth crawling things; or the hollow shell of a blasted treetrunk, its obscene orifices belching fetid air. Evil is an hollowness that only hints at what was evacuated, evil is a bad abstraction (the famous ‘treeman’ is the original ‘hollow man’, gazing resignely back at his own vacuity – an anticipation of modernity’s spiritual evacuation?). The infinitely riddled Sierpinsky sponge would be one extreme model: all hole but with a ghoulish objectal insistence, the Idea of infinite rot (and this would be where Negarestani’s analysis of holey space meets with his formalism of decay). However, such a model supposes the object of decay to be unitary and isolated, the rot localised, and the process terminal, ending with a dry husk. Decay is arrested through a local framing. It is only when envisaged on an all-encompassing, cosmic scale that decay will suggest an entire evil ontology.


Bosch’s predecessor Henry of Hesse (1325-1397) was one of the 14th Century scholastics who began seriously to erode an ossified Aristotelianism. His work grew out of what was one of the most important scholastic anticipations of early modern science, the question of the latitude of forms or the variation and measurement of intensive qualities.

For Hesse, the specific proper nature of things, as conceived by Aristotle, must be dispensed with: variations in intensity, combination and variable proportions of four primary qualities can account for all things in nature, each part of a body being defined by its tolerated degree or latitude of heat or cold, dryness and wetness, etc. and the whole being addressed as a complexio of these elements in given ratios.

Not only does this anticipate a post-Aristotelian science for which finality and proper place are subordinated to relative position and ratio but moreover, it reconfigures nature as an infinite reservoir for anomalous recombinations: Taxonomic boundaries disintegrate and Nature is no longer a bounded, delimitable field of organisation but a dynamic combinatorial pool composed of sub-individual differences in intensity varying continuously along multiple parameters. Every boundary is porous, every identity insists only within the range of a latitude, beyond which decay rejoins it with a cosmological continuum.

According to this incipient substitution of ‘functional’ criteria for categories descended from banal intuition, rather than being explained by indwelling properties the nature of an object or creature is referred to its characteristic complexio or proportional combination of elements each with a certain latitude of form (i.e. the range of heat and cold, or wet and dry, that it can withstand without being corrupted, ceasing to be itself). Each creature being defined only by its complexio, medicine then becomes the ‘art of latitudes’, the art of knowing the latitude of forms, the range of intensities, that each body, or organ of the body, can tolerate before it ceases to be itself. This conception of creatures as assemblages of latitudes is reflected in Deleuze’s ethological reading of Spinoza (affect=latitude):

[…] the human genera, species or even race hasn’t any importance, Spinoza will say, as long as you haven’t made the list of affects of which someone is capable, in the strongest sense of the word “capable,” comprising the maladies of which s/he is capable as well. It’s obvious that the racehorse and the draft horse are the same species, two varieties of the same species, yet their affects are very different, their maladies are absolutely different, their capacities of being affected are completely different and, from this point of view, we must say that a draft horse is closer to an ox than to a racehorse. Thus an ethological chart of affects is quite different from a generic or specific determination of animals.1

However, on the other side of these tolerances, decay begins to bite. As Negarestani indicates, decay was the subject of lengthy speculation during this period. Thorndike recounts the outlandish possibilities contemplated by Henry of Hesse:

It is suggested that during the corruption of the human body the first qualities might be altered to the proportions in which they occur in some other living being, although it would seem that the vast number of possible permutations and combinations would render this very unlikely. That a fox might be generated from a dead dog is also seriously considered.

This in its turn soon merges into a discussion of the relation between the form of the living man and of his corpse, and the question whether, and if so how soon, a plant or animal of another species can be generated from a dead body, human or animal. [Where] he discusses the difference between substance and accidental forms … It is asserted that another living substantial form never immediately succeeds the corruption of a living being, and that between the complexio of a living man and that of his corpse there intervene innumberable species, and yet in fact there is always made immediately the jump from the one extreme to the other […] More bold and alarming is Henry’s suggestion […] that it is not clear whether all men are of the same species or not, and so too with dogs and horses […] [C]orpses which had been of the same species when living might differ in species from one another when corrupted.2

It is not difficult to grasp, then, in these whispered proto-Spinozist horrors spoken in the name of a nascent science, why Negarestani emphasises its ‘cosmically revolutionary’ character. Beyond all taxonomy, beyond all hylomorphism, an immanent materialism comprising knotted lines of differentiation, convergences and anomalous becomings: undead abstract machine. In remarking the scholastic discovery that the decay of a being traverses a cosmology of other beings, Negarestani thus reveals a morbid ‘underside’ to Deleuze’s vitalist reading: So, a draft horse draws into proximity with an ox, a fox’s corpse with that of a dog. But it is gradients of decay that are most important, since they interpolate the species, describing lines of heretical becoming. The question is raised of Negarestani’s ‘anachronistic’ use of calculus: but, in the effort to quantify the relations between intensive states and their extensive deployment, it is this same proto-scientific scholastic framework that anticipated calculus, above all in the treatment of the latitude of forms by Oxford’s (14th–15th Century) Merton School (its brief blossoming of mathematics cut short by bubonic plague), and, in Paris, Oresme’s perpendicular diagramming of latitude and longitude (anticipating analytic geometry). In these discussions we can recognise what we would call rates of change, and the distinction between uniform and difform rates, and then uniformly difform, difformly difform, and even difformly difformly difformly difform, foreshadowing the nested differentiations of a mathematics that would flourish centuries later (Familiar with this legacy, above all through ‘The Calculator’ Richard Swyneshead, Leibniz would later be puzzled why his contemporaries would accept a first differential, but balked at the idea of ‘taking the difference’ of a difference).

This conjunction of Spinozist immanence and differentiation inevitably leads us to the ontomathematics of Deleuze, for whom problematic Forms, or Ideas, are infinitely nested differences or intensities, Ideal events only actualised through their degraded expression in quality and extensity.

The abstractive process of decay described by Negarestani, whereby latitudes are ‘tested’ to their uttermost minimal degree, would here correspond to an ascent—in principle interminable, thus a limit process—to the Idea—not a geometrical, mathematical or dialectical abstraction but an intensive destiny. (Here the political stakes of the question arise: is the effect of terror to reveal the true Idea of a society by decaying it to its ‘minimal’ lineaments?—see Negarestani’s Militarization of Peace in Collapse I) However, whereas for Deleuze Ideas are to be understood as vital reservoirs of expressive power, for a corrupted ontology Ideas are carcasses whose differential expression comports no vital force, but rather indicates an infinite capacity for putrefaction: the articulations of the real are glimpsed only to be churned back into the process. No return to primary elements, but a degeneration to no end, with no end. The bipolar configuration of actuality and virtuality here perturbs itself continually, the depths of Ideas finding their issue in the basest materiality. (This could equally be understood as a critique of Deleuzian vitalism, or as a reconfiguration of it against interpretations for which a ‘dualist’ Deleuze counsels a one-way spiritual ascent from the actual to the virtual.)

My father frequently experimented on tree diseases and insects … And this sort of thrills me – this earth, and then these plants coming out, and then there’s things crawling on them and the activity in the garden … And there are lots of things that are attacking the garden. There’s a lot of slaughter and death, diseases, worms, grubs, ants.3

If David Lynch somehow ‘purifies’ and abstracts the Idea of the Hollywood movie, how else is this achieved other than by a process of decay? The attenuated skeleton of structural components—the merest tatters of plot and shells of character—attest to the successful realisation of the Idea. The best Ideas are the rottenest ones. This degeneration also connects with what Negarestani calls poromechanics: in the vermiculated masterpiece Inland Empire the process is taken to the limit, leaving standing only the bare minimum scraps of plot necessary to hold the excessive plot-holes together. The movie has not ceased to be a movie, although it has ceased to be everything we thought we knew a movie was. In its extreme state of decay it somehow becomes more—almost too much—of a movie.


Scraps of photographs from the studio floor, ripped, pitted, mildewed, and clotted with paint, are transcribed verbatim onto the canvas, rephotographed, abandoned. Now, photographers love nothing better than a little scene of ruination, to be framed on a whitewashed gallery wall, like the stuffed head of a tiger above a fireplace. But (beyond any moralistic incrimination of their ‘superficiality’) these images usually reduce decay to the end of a signifier, whose vacillation on the edge of its extinction the photograph will fix and nostalgically attest to. Rather than the infinitely dense, Bergsonian past seething with productivity, the past becomes a litany of absences.

Bacon, instead, used the photograph as just another vector for the transversal decay that he was, a process of abstraction that owed nothing to the concept, and an expression that owed nothing to vital spontaneity. Here the aesthetic and philosophical aspects of the question come together: just as the artist guards against fetishising ‘ruin’s romance’ and re-presenting it, rather attempting to put into action an abstract machineof decay, philosophy must seek a formalism for this machine in order to guard against the analysis of decay becoming merely a sophisticated lament for lost presence. Negarestani has made great advances in this direction. But one key question remains: How is decay to be distanced decisively, formally, both from mere entropy and from a vitalism, even a pestilential one?

What, finally, could this mean for architecture? That constructions have their own Ideas of what they are or might be. That to watch urban decay is to see buildings theorising themselves. Software such as CATIA gives the architect supreme power to disregard matter, making architecture an imperious calligraphy (Gehry’s Guggenheim) whose forms are automatically reverse-engineered beneath the design surface. The ontology of decay might, at least, allow architects to escape from their ‘own’ Ideas, the better to accede to what matter makes of them when, through the unfolding of decay, it abstracts itself.

  1. G. Deleuze, Spinoza Course, lecture of 24/01/1978
  2. L. Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science Vol III (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934)
  3. D. Lynch, Lynch on Lynch, ed. Chris Rodley (London: Faber, 1997)