The Philosophy of Thomas Ligotti

True Detective & The Thoughts Of An Obscure Literary Master 

By Dr. James Trafford (University for The Creative Arts)

July 15, 2015         Picture: Robert Warden/Behance

This article is part of The Critique exclusive No Exit From Hell: The Philosophy Of True Detective.

“I think human consciousness is a tragic step in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law” Rust Cohle

“The human phenomenon is but the sum of densely coiled layers of illusion each of which winds itself on the supreme insanity. That there are persons of any kind when all there can be is mindless mirrors laughing and screaming as they parade about in an endless dream” Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti’s slow, patient, and suffocating irreverence for the world lives hardly beneath the surface of the densely coiled tissues of True Detective. As many commentators have pointed out, this is no more apparent than in the script and characterization of Rust Cohle. For Rust, reality is always already a nightmare that is constructed inside the dream-space that forms conscious experience (and this is also exacerbated by Rust’s experience of the bleeding of non-sleep and dream-waking). However, this is not a simple-minded exercise in sloughing the scales from our eyes. Whatever lies behind the constructed walls of the ego-tunnel (to use Thomas Metzinger’s term), is itself nothing short of a wasteland, and certainly nothing that we could hope to get any kind of handle on. We are offered a revelation of reality, which is only ever supposed to be the order of the unreal, as Ligotti puts it. Drawing upon E. M. Cioran’s work, according to Ligotti, we may read this notion of the “unreal” in the image of a kind of gnosticism without any god. In brief, the vision of life we purchase through Rust’s eyes is a mesmeric trap in an ongoing dream, a hallucinatory machine spinning through the void. Puppets without puppet masters: “To realize that all your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person” (Rust).

To discuss Ligotti’s “philosophy” at all, however, is a fractured foundation that gives way under pressure of systematization. Primarily, Ligotti’s work is a form of weird fiction in the lineage of Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Robert W. Chambers. His non-fiction work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010), is a kind of philosophical tract on the horror of the “real” and the dread that comes, hand-in-hand, with our self-reflection. But this, too, lends itself more to an oneiric, and labyrinthine, treatment than it does academic scrutiny. Ligotti’s work not only gets under the skin, but it infects the entire atmosphere of existence; a challenge to which True Detective attempts to rise. Here, I trace some of the lines of connection between True Detective and Ligotti’s work, with particular attention to the unhinging of “real” from its appearances, and of thought from its grounds in nature.

At its best, True Detective follows closely the track well-trodden by H. P. Lovecraft: the universe itself is rendered alien, but in the most familiar of ways. A well-woven detective story, a splash of occultism, a detective with alcohol issues, a dénouement, and, latterly, a transformative experience. This much fits the tropes for a standard HBO output. But, it is precisely this well-worn familiarity that is capable of uprooting our sensibilities as the tentacular weirdness of True Detective takes up residence almost immediately inside the nervous system. Think, for example, of the jarringly quotidian presence of the “Big Hug Mug” that Rust uses as an ashtray.

Importantly, for Ligotti, this “alienating” wedge between our ordinary experience and its “reality” is neither a matter of reductionism (that experience is explicable by means of an underlying reality), nor eliminativism of the “real” (that experience should be replaced by concepts drawn from our understanding of an underlying reality). Rather, the relationship between the structure of experience and the “real” is enmeshed in Ligotti’s work. There, what we have is not any kind of replacement of that which is experienced as “real”; ‘but a sort of turning the real world inside out to show that it was unreal all along’ [1]. Primarily, this is achieved by an upturning of the notion of the non-objectivity of subjectivity. In this sense, Ligotti closely follows Thomas Metzinger’s work on the science of consciousness, wherein; ‘the conscious self is an illusion which is no-one’s illusion’ [2]. For Metzinger, humans are not “selves”, rather they are simply organisms that possess “self-models” that are not recognizable as such (internally to the system). That is to say, we are merely information systems where: ‘the phenomenal self is not a thing, but a process – and the subjective experience of being someone emerges if a conscious information processing system operates under a transparent self-model’ [3].

This is the “trap” of existence according to Ligotti, which allows for a novel reading of Plato’s cave in which the cave itself is the organism, and the wall the phenomenal projection of the self-model: ‘the cave in which we live our conscious life is formed by our global, phenomenal model of reality’ [4]. The shadows that play on the walls of the cave are low-dimensional renderings of the world, filtered through the specific dynamics of information that is actually presented to the self-model. Consciousness is simply the ‘puppet shadow [that] dances on the wall of the neurophenomenological caveman’s phenomenal state space […] The cave shadow is there. The cave itself is empty’ [5].

According to Metzinger, all of this is, practically speaking, incommensurable with the register of human perception. To experience ourselves as self-models, or to experience whatever is “beyond” the self-model (whatever that may mean) is just not the sort of thing that is within the domain of human capacity. Indeed, as may be well exemplified in Rust, even acknowledging that this is the case ‘may be damaging to our mental well-being’ [6]. Yet, as in much of Ligotti’s fiction, Rust seems to hover on the brink of this experience – one foot in and out – at once he is restricted by his “programming”, and yet he is also capable of sensing the “psychosphere”. The latter is akin to Ligotti’s notion of the “fictional diversion”. This is a Borgesian fiction within a fiction, but also one which structures our experience of the world into something that is comforting, homely; something liveable (otherwise, as Rust’s partner, Marty Hart puts it, ‘why get out of bed in the morning?’).

Throughout the series, the occult overtones, as well as the stereotypical problematics of transgression (such as Hart’s familial breakdown and resurrection, followed by his problems with his daughter’s pretty conventional teenage “rebellion”), rather than puncture this diversion, serve only to shore it up. It is precisely these graspable forms of contravention of the ordinary state of affairs that render the “normal” normal in a kind of structural reassurance. These, perhaps, are just part and parcel of the warding off of the horror of ungrounding the psychosphere itself. Metzinger, pre-echoing Rust’s monologue in the first episode, and reminiscent of Spinoza has it that: ‘conscious subjectivity is the case in which a single organism has learned to enslave itself’ [7]. As Rust has it: “I have seen the finale of thousands of lives, man. Young, old, each one so sure of their realness. You know that their sensory experience constituted a unique individual with purpose and meaning. So certain that they were more than biological puppet. The truth wills out, and everybody sees. Once the strings are cut, all fall down.”

The source of horror, rather, is, in Ligotti’s account, an uprooting of the foundations of the world: ‘But is there really a strange world? Of course. Are there, then, two worlds? Not at all. There is only our own world and it alone is alien to us’ [8]. Neither the universe, nor consciousness, are under theological or natural jurisdiction. According to Rust, consciousness is a kind of natural error, in which nature produces conscious entities as capable of some form of self-understanding. This much seems in accord with Metzinger. Ligotti’s own metaphysics is less naturalistic, and more in accord with Rust’s pessimism. But in both, we are led to a form of fatalism, in which the uncovering of the “natural” order is, nonetheless, an insuperable nexus to which we are forever bound: there is no escape. In many ways, then, Rust is a puppet of Ligotti’s own structured meaninglessness: a meaninglessness that is constituted by the fissure between nature and nature’s own construction of a consciousness that is capable of reflecting upon its own foundations: ‘the horror and nothingness of human existence – the cosy facade behind which was only a spinning abyss’ [9].

The realization that the structure of thinking is neither intrinsically meaningful, nor tied down by God, Nature, or whatever else, is precisely the condition of thought’s release from those strictures. Ironically, though, Ligotti ends up accepting the strictures even in the moment that they are made visible, and it is this acceptance that also brings with it a fatalistic anti-natalism in which: ‘[o]ur self-removal from this planet would still be magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose?’ [10]. This rears its head in True Detective most obviously in Rust’s eulogizing his daughter’s being “spared” the misery of existence in the ridiculously stereotypical notion of a pain-free, happy, and innocent childhood. In fact, a kind of fatalism runs throughout the series, though, arguably, these woven moments of “pre-destiny” are perhaps the weakest elements of the universe of True Detective. For example, the movement of consciousness’ birth into the pain of “meat”-existence is shot through the eerily microcosmic placement of Marty’s daughter Audrey’s dolls into a supposedly shocking sexual act reflecting that of the cult, and her “aberrant” drawings, both of which are treated as augury of both past and future. Further still, it is not by chance that these moments are typically figured through the women in the show, who (at times) are little more than plot-devices, whose trauma is only ever in service of the structure of the narrative moving, inexorably, to its ends.

In this sense, the arena of “meaningfulness”, along with the psychosphere, looks like a kind of immovable feast. This is a kind of totality of the signifying structures of lived experience, the lebenswelt, which is made to seem as though it is rooted in a transparent relation with the world [11]. Alienation, in the vein that we are offered in True Detective, offers an uprooting of experience from the constraints of human phenomenality, which nonetheless, leaves the Urdoxa exactly as they were. For all the attempt to remove religious mysticism, this is where we end up – either you can see it or you can’t – and if you can see it, then all that you once cherished is deemed meaningless and hence eliminable from the status of the “real”. The “real” that lies beneath now replaces that naïve realism in apophatic manoeuvres, and, for all that, we ought simply accelerate our own demise. This is a kind of negation of that which is (or seems to be), to reveal that which is not (which is all there ever really was). For example, in the end, Rust’s rationalisation under socio-evolutionary rubric, serves to shore up exactly the kind of justification of Marty’s affair with Lisa that Maggie, and all too many Hollywood wives, have heard too many times before.

Nevertheless, it is a structural principle of True Detective that thought itself is alien: that there is nothing natural about thinking. What is alien about thinking is that it brings with it paradox: ‘In the literature of supernatural horror, a familiar storyline is that of a character who encounters a paradox in the flesh, so to speak, and must face down or collapse in horror before this ontological perversion – something which should not be, yet is’ [12]. Paradox points to the limits of what can be thought such that it is the injunction of thought to precisely think those limits, and also to transcend them in the same movement. As Hegel put it: ‘Great stress is laid on the limitations of thought, of reason, and so on, and it is asserted that the limitation cannot be transcended. To make such an assertion is to be unaware that the very fact that something is determined as a limitation implies that the limitation is already transcended.’

It is arguable that our ordinary (and philosophical) reaction to such paradoxes is one of prophylatic recoil at that which is ‘inconceivable’, and yet is also a creation of the system in which it is conceived. The paradoxes that arise at each attempt to totalize thought provide us with content that potentially devastates the notion of a totality of meaningfulness. For example, the antinomies, according to Kant, provide reason to think that that which may be supposed to be an external referent will reside under irresolvable dispute (this is linked to totalities such as the cosmos), and as such, these cannot possibly be legitimate objects of enquiry. In this respect, it is interesting to consider human doxastic conservatism. The experimental psychology of human reasoning suggests that humans have a fundamental bias in ‘the tendency to automatically bring prior knowledge to bear when solving problems’. In the literature around this, it is often suggested that most reasoning revolves around what is called ‘representative heuristics’ judgment, which results in a fundamental ‘belief bias’ across human reasoning. So, it looks like humans have a tendency towards doxastic conservatism, in that we routinely seek to confirm our existent beliefs [13]. We might conjecture that the appearance of the “totality” of meaningfulness is a by-product of both our cognitive machinery and our inherent doxastic conservativeness: we search for what we anticipate, and see what we anticipate even where it does not appear.

But, self-consciousness, if that is what we call the reflexive movement of thought’s own self-reflection, may instead be reconsidered in relation to its ability to both buckle and stimulate the materiality of sensation, the structure of doxa, and the unreasonable requirements of rationality. It is precisely this movement that is concomitant with a force of thought that is capable of escaping its own structures. That is to say, this thought of the unthinkable that is made possible in thought’s reflection upon itself is already a process of exteriorization of thinking. Then, it may be possible to conjoin the undermining of transparent meaning, with the renegotiation of those conditions according to the materiality underpinning experience, and the rational processes through which it is understood. This would promise instead a project of transformation and potential emancipation.

If we take this seriously, then what Ligotti’s work brings with it is neither an uprooting that institutes a sublime state of nature, nor a ‘mere pathologisation’, a negative result. Rather, there is a catastrophe from the ‘inside’ of a structure, acting upon a limited, contingent, space of meaning, which uproots the structure itself. Ligotti’s work, as well as True Detective, does not see this kind of uprooting, rather it swallows the notion of “limitation” on the totality of meaning, and allows only for its formal negation. Nonetheless, it is also clear that the breach of the unthinkable is made psychologically tractable there, as the dissolution of the contingent totality. It is precisely this ability of thought to reflect upon its own conditions that ensures that it is not merely trapped by programming, but rather is capable of re-programming those conditions beyond mere constraints. This, transformative gesture, is perhaps already to be found in Ligotti’s work: ‘the integrity of material forms is only a prejudice, at most a point of view […] things are not bolted down, so to speak. And no more is that thing which we call the mind’ [14]. This would be to construct the force of thought as that which explores unforeseeable dimensions of life, meaning and truth. But otherwise: “Who told you, you had to understand? Why would you?” (Audrey, Marty’s daughter).

Footnotes & References

Thanks to Paul J. Ennis for useful comments on an earlier draft.

[1] Joshi, S. T. (2003). ‘Thomas Ligotti: Escape From Life’, in Schweitzer, D. (ed.). The Thomas Ligotti Reader, Evanston, MD: Wildside Press, p.139.

[2] Metzinger, T. (2000). ‘The subjectivity of subjective experience: A representationist analysis of the first-person perspective’, in Metzinger, T. (ed.). Neural Correlates of Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp.285-306.

[3] Metzinger, T. (2003). ‘Response to “A Self Worth Having”: A Talk With Nicholas Humphrey’, available at:

[4] Metzinger, T. (2003). Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p.546.

[5] ibid., p.550.

[6] ibid., p. 558.

[7] ibid., p. 558.

[8] Ligotti, T. (1996). ‘The Journal of J. P. Drapeau’, in Ligotti, T., The Nightmare Factory, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishing.

[9] Ligotti, T. (2010). The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, New York: Hippocampus Press.

[10] ibid., p.104.

[11] Deleuze and Guattari call this the Urdoxa, ‘meaning of meanings’ in Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1996). What is Philosophy, NY: Columbia University Press, p.210.

[12] Ligotti, Conspiracy, p.16.

[13] On this, see the work of Dutilh Novaes, e.g. Dutilh Novaies, C. (2012). Formal Languages in Logic: A Philosophical and Cognitive Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[14] Ligotti, T. (2005). ‘The Cocoons’, in The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, NY: Cold Spring Press, p.164.

James Trafford
James Trafford
James Trafford is Senior Lecturer in Contextual Studies at University for the Creative Arts, Epsom. He has written widely on rationality, logic, and realism.
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