Sunday, 31 January 2010

Speculative Realism Reading Group: Nihilism Rebound

Well, we had a great reading group session last Wednesday. We read Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound. This is a quite a dense text, but we had a lot of fun unpacking it. Ray Brassier’s main endeavour in this text is, as he claims, to bring the purview of the sciences within the ontological remit of philosophy. For Brassier, there has been a sundering of this dichotomy, especially within 20th Century Philosophy. In opposition, Brassier wants to provide a speculative and metaphysical grammar which holds for both sciences and philosophy; in short to give provides the underlying language for an account of ‘human meaning’. Brassier’s primary thesis is obscure and hard to articulate, however, it does provide a radical departure for the trajectory of European Philosophy. Brassier wants to argue for a new form of nihilism. One that aggregates the nothingness of all entities, hence, nihil unbound. In a way, he is continuing on from some of the insights of Meillassoux who endorses the contingency of all entities. In Chapter 1 Brassier begins by following the insights of Wilfred Sellars who opposed the manifest image of the human from the scientific image of the human. The manifest image suggests that there is a realm of human self-perception or human life. The scientific image suggests that humans are generated out of complex physical phenomenon. Brassier sides with the latter, insisting that we can attain an objective perspective on our own subjectivity; Brassier also uses Paul Churchland’s eliminative materialism to buttress his claims, who for him, has a more sophisticated account of phenomenal appearance in material terms.

We looked at chapter 3 of the text, which took up Brassier’s relationship to Meillassoux. Meillassoux’s as we saw in the last reading group, suggests that philosophy especially that of the Kantian and Post-Kantian variety, suggests that humans are the centre of all representation. Basically there can be no access to reality without it going through human perception, transcendental apperception and synthetic a priori and so forth. The task in turn is to think how we can think of reality in itself without any constituting activity of human subjectivity. Brassier repeats Meillassoux’s argument about the arche-fossil, the arche-fossil is roughly a phenomena we know which exists prior to human access. It is millions of years old and we know this exists thanks to scientific evidence. The significance of the arche-fossil is that it points to a ‘cognizable’ experience exterior to the existence of subjectivity. These events are events prior to both life and thought. Human consciousness itself is limited and finite. There is therefore a region of existence that is not dependent on human consciousness. The existence of phenomena transcends these limitations.

As the arche-fossil shows, there are innumerable phenomena in existence that are not dependent on humans. As relevant to philosophy are the surface of alpha centurai and the time of the origin of life over 10 billion years ago. It is also worth noting that all this applies to pretty much all of contemporary continental philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Husserl and post-structuralism. In Brassier words, all these schools of philosophy surreptitiously find ways of keeping the non-manifest within the manifest image. To reconcile the ‘manifest’ and the ‘scientific image’ it is necessary to think how cognizable events can think the reality of the universe without relying on the apparatus of cognitive events. This is the task which Brassier sets himself.

In constructing his positive philosophy, Brassier asks us to look at the arche-fossil. The arche-fossil indicates that there exists a time prior to the time of human manifestation. Human time is based on events, past, present and future. It is based on the flow of succession. I think the kernel of Brassier’s work is in some way to try and show how this more originary time generates subjective time. If we can think this we can think Being qua Being. Subjective time is always therefore the effect of more originary time with human subjectivity being only an individuation of it. Conceptualizing this originary time as the foundation of subjectivity allows Brassier to present an axiomatic foundation to thought which is not generated by thought itself. Because ancestral time or the arche-fossil time is prior to subjective time it must in some way condition the coming into existence of perceptual or apparent time. Brassier at this point forces the issue; his account forgoes the modern and rational account of philosophy as a modern ground of subjectivity, as well as the pre-modern cosmological hierarchy of being. There is neither subject nor object in themselves and neither are these notions sustainable in an infinite and immortal enduring substance.

Brassier develops this line of thought in his chapter on Deleuze. This is one of the stronger chapters in the book, and is well worth attention. It is here that he works out what he has previously called the isomorphy of thought and being. While I can’t go into this in detail, I will mention some points. There is an interesting counterpoints here between Deleuze and Heidegger; two major but ultimately unfulfilled vectors of 20th Century thought. Deleuze remains too vitalistic. His work, although important, fails to embrace the region of the inanimate and still remains too focused on ‘life’ philosophy. In a way Deleuze fails to embrace death. Heidegger remains too focused on death, or human finitude. It is for Heidegger death that makes a human exceptional, and mitigates the human from being reduced to one thing among others in the world. The role of death for Heidegger, as that which constitutes Dasein, is that which stops the human from being another thing in the world. Death stops the human being ontic. The two great philosophers of life and death don’t go far enough. Heidegger doesn’t wholly restrict questions of temporality to human Dasein, but ultimately fails to conceive in any detailed the temporality on absolute time. Brassier also is not keen on Heidegger’s distinction between life and the sciences.

There is thus only a localised or limited form of negation in Heidegger. It is restricted to human life. It also presupposes a distinction between human lived life and biological life. To this he opposes Deleuze’s notion of ‘time in itself’. Being itself is understood as temporal differentiation. The Bergson lineage is evident albeit amended. Being is univocal and there it is where “Deleuze rehabilitates the thesis of ontological univocity such that it is being qua time that is ‘said in one and the same sense of all its individuating differences or intrinsic modalities.” (162)As mentioned above, Being is explainable in terms of its self-generation, where all differences are an effect of this one process. Change is part of negation, and what he wants is the pure negation of being itself, not, that of human being. To put it quickly, on the plus side Deleuze has a radical and unified notion of death. So rather than death being human, it constitutes all of being. There is an originary metamorphosis in being itself. Deleuze surpasses Nietzsche‘s nihilism who remains caught between the need for a stable and false appearance and a realm of being as pure becoming. Becoming is dependent on creatures who are capable of evaluating it as such. Only beings who can come to terms with will to power can conceive of it in terms of joyous affirmation or resentful negation or ressentiment. So the correlationism still stands.

Brassier prefers the more radical thesis that dichotomy between affirmation and nothingness is a false dichotomy. Instead we should only have nothingness itself.
So Brassier’s point is that there is always a time prior to any event or entity which causes ultimately negates any self-sufficiency of these objects. There is destructibility; therefore there must be a nihilation. This form of time is pure. It does not pass or cease or is not constituted by death in any way. While Brassier does not explicitly say so, his metaphysics remains strangely immortal. I think this is because his originary time is in some way Deleuzian. It is a pure and monistic form of time that is conceived as an eternal self-generation absolutely immanent to itself. There can be only one, which has scalar degrees of differentiation generated out of this one being. There is I think here a danger that Brassier repeats the temporal succession of consciousness on a cosmic level. Originary time is not susceptible to change because it is pure and empty. It is the eternal becoming of one monistic being. He calls this the pure and empty form of time. Pure I take it means that this form of time is uncontaminable, empty I take it to mean that which is a void that cannot be filled. Either way the nothingness that Brassier endorses, seems immune to particular and specific objects and worlds coming to be. It is difficult to negotiate notions of anteriority and posteriority; however, put in this way, it is hard to see anything happening at all let alone nothing. To think of an originary time, the pure and empty form of time is not possible tout court since nothingness itself cannot happen or be an event. This is not at all because, or restricted to the limitations of human consciousness. To adopt notions of becoming, whether monistic are not is to adopt temporal and relational terms which only allow something to be cognizable within spatio-temporal coordinates. Some questions need to be answered how does such a nothingness have an efficacy or operational modality.

For Brassier, the important thing is take up the trajectory of pure nothingness. It is to think eternal nothingness, a pure eternity of the nothingness of all things. Once we achieve this then we can grasp the truth of all being i.e. the nothingness that is writ into all entities. If we have this, we can surpass we can surpass limitations and think of the cosmos as unbound. Hence, nihil unbound. There are no limits to which nothingness can apply itself to. Eternal and Becoming at the same time. This eternity is basically for Brassier the great leveller. It is the truth of all things. To understand this allows us to have in Brassier’s words, an ‘isomorphy of thinking and being’. This seems to be the nub of his ideas. If we can get rid of passing and change, and demarcations and qualifications, therefore we can get to the eternal nothing, or the eternal becoming nothing of beings. Then we have something pure and empty without structural traces or relationality. If we have this, we have an isomorphy of the material of thinking and being.

I do have some reservations here in terms of consistency. Brassier endorses the enduringness of nothingness rather than something. There is a tension here that I think is difficult to overcome. If one is to acknowledge an anterior time to cognitive time, then I don’t see how it is possible to think of this without some temporal and spatial relationality. Time and space are not exclusive to human consciousness; it is not as if the human mind owns these or constitutes the nature of reality. In fact the only way one could claim this, is if one buys into the Kantian notion of consciousness in the first. One interesting point that Neil raised in this light in the reading group, is that Brassier wilfully presents the demonic level of nothingness. The exact obverse of the reason why there is something rather than nothing. Now, the reason there is something rather than nothing is because of nothingness. In all of this we did think that there was a strong theological trace in Brassier’s work. The pure and empty form of nothingness does have some kind of immortal and God like structure. It is something that can transcend death and survives and remains strangely resilient to the death of all things in the universe.

There are some interesting and creative moments towards the end of the book. It turns to Lyotard’s dramatic moment in The Inhuman. Being itself will ultimately become extinct with the extinguishing power of the sun in 4.8 billion years. The absolute telos of all is absolute pure nothingness, it is nothing but negation. Telos is indeed wholly the wrong word to use. It is just that writ into our existence is, as Brassier puts it, the fact that everything is dead already. For Brassier, this is not something that will happen. It is happening already. There is a trace of the stellar death which wipes out all human horizons and which is written in to the earth’s history and future on grand scale; Brassier presents a view of existence that is much more dramatic than Heidegger’s Dasein and the finitude of death or any Sartrian bifurcation of Being and nothingness. The point is that the sun is dying. We know this from science just as humans are dying. We are also aware of the heat death of the universe. In an odd way Brassier’s work is bookended by materialist beginning and ends of the arche-fossil and heat death of the universe. If one presents a short summary of Brassier, it could be seen as a superimposing of existentialism on the entire universe. It is cosmic absurdity without humanity. While the sun cannot become anxious in the sense that humans do, it can certainly die and have a relationship to change. This is what he calls the death of death; the death of the centrality of the mortal and the human: the unbinding of nihilism itself.

The heat death of the universe will announce the death of all matter and eternal darkness. There is no immortality. There is no transmigration of souls. There is no relative survival. One cannot transport between brains and machines. All this does is borrow time, literally, all events and objects share in this extinction of the universe. What things are, what they will become are forever negated or negatable. Language, Dasein, embodiment mask this truth existence all of these and hide the truth of the cosmos essential nihilation. One could posit a curious reversal of Derrida here, the trace of negation is futural and from the past. The arche fossil indicates our prior nihilation and the heat death of the universe indicates our futural nihilation. By reversing Derrida, Brassier is a prophet of nihilation rather than the messianic. There is always a trace of negation from the future and past. This is however configured as extinction and it is something that operates actively. It has an efficacy. It motivates and conditions all things. It is beyond possibility, it is beyond temporality. It commands and usurps the sovereignty of all entities and remains the eternal destiny of all things that come to be. In an interesting move Brassier couches this in Levinasian terms. Extinction is the other of natural science rather than the other of the human and the sovereignty of consciousness which Levinas endorses. The other is seen in Levinasian terms as a ‘wounding or haemorrhaging’ of all subjectivity. Extinction performs a similar function. Behind all appearances is an anonymous and restless being or Levinas’ ‘il y a'. It is the anonymity of death that is at hand in all things. While for Levinas the Other was the trace of God, for Brassier it is the trace of extinction. The proximity of these notions is thought provoking. Levinas god is infinite and unbreakable, the anonymous rustling of the infinity of absolute immanence. The notion of an empty, anonymous and unbreakable nothingness may thus not be as resolutely entrenched in scientific materialism as Brassier might allow. However, read as is, with the appropriation of Levinas Brassier has overturned theology. It is the trace of extinction that rules out all possibilities not the trace of God. Thought has to become equal to this task of negativity. It has to become one with it.

Patrick O'Connor

1 comment:

  1. Yes, an excellent session this one - shame others couldn't get along to it as well.

    The discussion ranged from Larouelle to the Churchlands! The big pay off of to the discussion was that we can now see the extent to which speculative realism is a simply an attempt to provide an overarching metaphysics for the natural sciences. This shows just how Sellarsian the whole enterprise is!

    However, we have to ask why science needs this kind of metaphysical support. At the moment it seems to be getting on perfectly well without it, and if pushed would rather subscribe to a banal rational/empiricism than a specualtive materialism a la Brassier

    Neil Turnbull