A Night in Which All Cats are Grey:
Reification and the Depressive Absolute


In the caves / all cats are grey.

The Cure

I

In the 1807 Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, G.W.F. Hegel famously criticized his contemporary Schelling’s conception of the Absolute, calling it “the night in which all cows are black.” Hegel derived this polemical quip from a popular proverb, which also came in the variant, “in the dark, all cats are grey,” describing a condition in which all particulars are indistinguishable. This was precisely what Hegel thought was inadequate in Schelling’s Absolute — Schelling maintained “in the Absolute, all is one,” which for Hegel meant mere “monotonousness and abstract universality,” a “monochrome formalism” which “dissipat[ed] what is determinate and distinct…into the abyss of vacuity.”

Hegel objects that such a view of truth masquerades as profound while telling us nothing at all about the rich, variegated contents of reality, and waving away the problem precisely on the specious grounds that such indistinct unknowability is what makes the Absolute the Absolute. For Hegel, this will not do. For Hegel, the Absolute is the true, what philosophical consciousness must aspire to, grasp, and then take as its ground for further, actual activity. “Everything depends,” says Hegel, “on grasping and expressing the true not as Substance but as Subject as well.” Hegel claimed that for Schelling, true reality was seen as merely Substance, the mass of stuff in its vast, undifferentiated, simple, “immediate unity” of being. But for Hegel, “the living Substance is Being which is truly Subject, or — to say the same — which is truly actual in so far as it is a movement of self-positing, or the mediation of itself with its becoming-other. As Subject, Substance is pure simple negativity, and precisely thereby it is the splitting of the simple in two, or an opposition-setting duplication which again is the negation of that indifferent difference and of its opposite: only this self-reconstituting identity, this self-reflection in being-other, and not some original unity as such, or an immediate thing as such — is the true. The true is the process of its own Becoming.”

For Hegel, the Absolute, the true, is the process of human Spirit’s historical development, differentiation, objectification, becoming-other and then taking back, arduously coming to consciousness of itself as Subject, as the maker of its own world, at once the producer and product of itself: “the Absolute…is essentially a result.”

II

Mark Fisher wrote much incisive commentary on pop culture and contemporary social anomie before finally committing suicide in 2017. He knew depression intimately.

In a piece on Joy Division as an exemplary depressive rock group, he wrote, “Depression is not sadness, not even a state of mind, it is a (neuro)philosophical (dis)position…a theory about the world, about life…that is so overwhelming, so general, that to appeal to any particular instance seems superfluous.” This resonates with my experience of a lifetime of depression. It is not a (dis)position we want or choose, but one in which we seem to have been enveloped by a blunt, immediate wave of certainty whispering, “it’s all the same to me.” Depression is the leaden certainty of utter futility which softly drowns consciousness beneath this revelation at once apparently profound and incontrovertibly self-evident. This revelation is the depressive Absolute.

A year after Ian Curtis hanged himself, the Cure recorded Faith, an album less stained with the onyx aura of angst than anything by Joy Division, yet which nonetheless contains one of the supreme sonic expressions of the depressive Absolute: “All Cats are Grey.” The depressive sees the world as a vast, monochrome substance, a night in which all particulars dissolve in interchangable, undifferentiated meaninglessness. Effective activity or conscious change appear impossible as but one in a field of dumb objects propelled by a brutal and senseless fate into churning motion, like the reverb-drenched, plodding, cyclical rhythm of the Cure song, which the depressive recognizes as ultimately indistinguishable from a comatose frieze. As Fisher put it, the depressive sees “life as…an automated marionette dance, which ‘through a circle that ever returneth in / to the self-same spot’ (Poe), an ultra-determined chain of events that goes through its motions with remorseless inevitability. You watch the pre-scripted film as if from outside, condemned to watch the reels as they come to a close, brutally taking their time.”

III

It is utterly false to treat the depressive (dis)position as if it were a medical defect inhering in certain monads. It is one form of appearance of a general social condition which Georg Lukács termed “reification.”

In a society in which commodity production by means of the commodity-form of labor-power is generalized, things appear to rule over human beings, whose social relations in turn appear as relations between things, which Marx identified as “the inversion of the subject into the object and vice versa.” Capital appears as “self-valorizing value,” an “automatic subject” (Capital Vol. 1), an “animated monster that moves ‘as if its body were by love posessed’” (Grundrisse). What is this seemingly autonomous “alien power?” “Not the gods, not nature, but only man himself can be this alien power over man” (1844 Manuscripts). But this reified human activity confronts us as “the rule of the object over the human, of dead labour over living, of the product over the producer, since in fact the commodities which become means of domination over the worker (but purely as means of the rule of capital itself) are mere results of the production process” (Results of the Immediate Process of Production). The capitalist production process is not merely one of useful effects, but of value, value driven by its own logic to ceaselessly expand, turning owners and workers into mere “character masks” which it wears to carry out its compulsive function. Thus the capitalist as well as the worker is “just as much under the yoke of the capital-relation,” this seemingly independent, self-moving force “standing face to face with man as laws of nature foreign to, and dominating him,” as Engels put it in the Anti-Dühring.

Lukács calls this reification of social relations “a ‘second nature’ which envelops man with its fatalistic laws,” like the ineluctable typhoon, before which “the personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle and fed into an alien system” (History and Class Consciousness). Abstract domination by such “a process mechanically conforming to fixed laws and enacted independently of man's consciousness and impervious to human intervention…must likewise transform the basic categories of man's immediate attitude to the world. …activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative.” Note the similarity between Lukács’s description of reified society and Fisher’s description of the world-picture of the depressive, helplessly watching a seemingly automatic chain of events as if from outside. For the isolated particles who have “lost all power over the use of their own lives,” as Debord put it, buffeted by the gales of such a “hostile and alien” world, the lapse into an indifferent, depressive catatonia is an obvious response. A social reality that appears “impervious to human intervention” is a reality evacuated of subjectivity, a monolitic Absolute functionally identitical in its substance: a night in which all cats are grey.

This world-picture is, of course, untrue. Humans do make our own history, and produce our own social world by our activity, but we do it “behind our own backs” as Adorno reminded us. The depressive Absolute is not so much a false consciousness, but rather the consciousness of a world that is truly false. The attainment of the Absolute in Hegel’s sense, as the result of its own becoming that in turn is the actual ground of its free, conscious activity, cannot be effected within the head of the reasoning philosopher nor of the depressive in therapy, but only by self-reflexive global revolutionary praxis in which humanity grasps and expresses itself as Subject.




A New Institute for Social Research