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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Brassier's nihilism, concepts and objects

Brassier replies to me by email commenting on my recent post (Speculative Anti-vitalism below, on Nihil Unbound (NU) and its criticism of vitalism through the notion of extinction. Brassier takes the opportunity to present an elaboration of his current disagreements with the NU project:

NU equivocates in a dangerous and misleading fashion between the logical and the ontological (or the conceptual and the metaphysical), especially in its final chapters. I ought to have emphasized the disjunction between these two registers, as well as their intrication, much more carefully.  I tried to clarify this in responding to someone who asked me about this issue and I hope you don’t mind me reproducing some of my answers to him here (it was part of an interview for a Slovenian student journal).

The significance of the concept of extinction goes beyond mere acceptance of a scientific discovery (whether biological or cosmological) and is supposed to play a transformative epistemological role. It is explicitly deployed as a philosophical, rather than a scientific concept. And it's deployed as an attempt to address the following question: "How are we to reckon with the claim that the physical conditions upon which life and thought depend will eventually (if our best current science is to be believed) cease to exist?". So the concept of extinction as I use it  does not just refer to the termination of biological species, or even to the annihilation of the physical universe, but to the lapsing of a prevalent philosophical understanding of life as generative of thought. It's an attempt to radicalize and generalize the specifically scientific concept of extinction, and to endow it with a more universal scope in order to address the following quandary: "How are we to make sense of the end of sense as philosophers have hitherto understood it?" This is why it marks a fundamental epistemological transformation: it entails a transformation in the conditions of cognitive understanding, insofar as these are alleged to be rooted in some originary or primordial dimension of the human phenomenon, whether it be the transcendence of intentionality (Husserl), being-in-the-world (Heidegger), or the immanence of auto-affecting consciousness (Henry). That's why I describe it as a trauma for phenomenology: it subverts the transcendental pretensions of the kind of phenomenology for which human experience constitutes the fundamental phenomenon. The positive implication of understanding extinction, over and above this subversive function, involves recognizing the autonomy of the conceptual order and carrying out a determinate negation of concepts such as 'meaning' and 'life' in order to transform the possibilities of existence.  The goal is to propose a rationalistic, as opposed to aesthetic (i.e. Nietzschean), resolution of the problem of nihilism. Such rationalism involves a kind of idealism of course, but materialism and idealism are dialectically articulated, and the materialism I'm interested in is one that recognizes the irreducibility of the conceptual as well as the difference between conceptual ideality and material reality---a difference that should not be construed as a metaphysical absolute, but as a regulative ideal wherein the convergence of phenomenal experience and noumenal reality functions as the ideal limit of cognitive enquiry.  I realize that a proper justification for both the negative-critical and positive-constructive aspects of extinction is lacking in NU, which is why I intend to develop them properly by unpacking the full ramifications of Wilfrid Sellars' attack on "the myth of the given". Sellars' critique extends beyond a critique of sense-datum empiricism and applies to any philosophy for which conscious experience is "self-authenticating", including phenomenology and Bergsonian vitalism. 

I don't accept Zizek’s charge that my attempted cosmological reinscription of the death-drive amounts to naively ideological regression. It would indeed be a regression if it was a 'cosmologization' in the straightforwardly metaphysical sense rightly criticized by Laplanche. But the reinscription I have in mind it is carried out at the conceptual meta-level of transposition or interference between manifest and scientific images, not at the first-order ontological level, which would indeed be unacceptably metaphysical. But this is not very clearly stated in the book, so I have invited misunderstanding.

I agree with Zizek that what is significant about the compulsion to repeat is its introduction of a discontinuity between the human and animal realms; I concur with his rejection of a 'layer cake' metaphysics, according to which reality comprises a stratified hierarchy of layers (physical, chemical, biological, psychological, social, etc.), which is why I find a metaphysics of 'emergence' so problematic. Lastly, I also think that the philosophical value of Freud's speculations about the 'death-drive' is not to be sought in their allegedly biological basis. The reinscription of the death-drive attempted in NU is not the result of identifying two empirical instances: a (supposedly) biological 'death-drive' with a (supposedly) cosmological 'dark energy'. It is generated by establishing an analogon between two negations: the negation of the categorial difference between life and death in Freud's subordination of the organic to the inorganic, and the negation of the categorial difference between matter and void in whatever is responsible for the long-term disintegration of the universe's physical structure. Very simply, the point is that attentiveness to the sciences obliges us to reorganize our categories and to recognize the problematic 'reality' of something for which we do not yet have a name: that 'something' manifests itself as the cancellation of the difference between life and death in post-Darwinian biology; just as it manifests itself as the cancellation of the difference between particles and void in contemporary cosmology.   

Ultimately, there is a tension between loyalty and interrogative conscience in NU: the problem is structural: I write about philosophical constructions whose pertinence and power enables my own thinking, so it's incumbent upon me to delineate them as accurately as possible, while at the same time I try to identify those points where a fundamental (rather than merely superficial) inconsistency (or contradiction) vitiates the coherence of the construction, but also points towards a possible transformation that reconfigures the structure in question, orienting it in an unexpected direction.
It struck me afterwards that my manner of philosophizing is essentially dialectical for the same reason as it is basically parasitic or derivative, and while I am very far from being a Derridean or Adornian, this is why I remain broadly sympathetic to the procedures of deconstruction and negative dialectics (I probably feel closer to the latter insofar as I think the attempt to articulate dialectics and non-dialectics has to preclude any recourse to the brute, unintelligible transcendence of alterity or "the event", yet I also detect something similar in the Adornian pathos of "reconciliation", which strikes me as an indefensible theological relapse). The point is not just to erect a shiny new system ex nihilo but to identify an uncircumventable problematic whose binding features (i.e. grip) necessitate the construction of new concepts: only an invention that is somehow necessary has the power to compel, which is why I remain unimpressed by calls to rehabilitate metaphysical system building in the name of edifying virtues such as “affirmation” and/or “creation”.

Anyway, I now very much want to re-assert the necessarily dialectical structure of philosophizing, provided one understands dialectics as that which enjoins the maximization of consistency even as it disqualifies conceptual self-enclosure: the goal is systematicity without a system; this is what distinguishes the logical dynamism of dialectics from any facile, anti-totalizing relativism that fetishises, and thereby unwittingly absolutizes, the partial and the incomplete. It's very important to me to find a way to salvage the rational kernel of anti-dialectical scepticism (whether deconstructionist or other) from its obscurantist envelopment, but also to shatter the theological afflatus that inflates dialectics into absolute idealism. What is essential to negativity is the link to time: time is the ruin of logic, yet logic can, indeed must, delineate its own ruin. This is why, at least for me, a thoroughly disillusioned rationalism is essentially pessimistic, and ultimately nihilistic.

Anyway, all this is just a longwinded way of explaining why I now have a better understanding of what it is I have been doing, even if I failed to understand it while I was doing it, and why my modus operandi is essentially un-original: the point is not to glorify commentary (in the manner of hermeneuticists), but to emphasize the binding power of historically specific problem-fields and the necessarily dialectical structure of any philosophizing compelled in response to such problematics.     

I take extinction plays a crucial role in his argument for an anti-vitalist nihilism. Instead of stressing ancestrality as something that ought to exist beyond thought, he points at extinction as something that is within thought and points outwards towards something that exists (countering, for example, the idea that something cannot exist independently of our conception, the conclusion of what David Stove called the Gem argument – see Brassier's Concepts and Objects (C&O) in The Speculative Turn). Hence, it is something that follows directly from reason once it recognizes the boundaries through extinction: there ought to be something that exists when concept mongers get extinguished (once it is clear that they will). Stressing extinction is an attempt to ground a world independent of conception from a feature of conception itself – that it conceives and discovers its own extinction. Brassier's eliminative nihilism seems then closer to something akin to a transcendental rather than to a speculative anti-vitalism. At least this is how I understand this passage from what he says above:

[…] the reinscription I have in mind it is carried out at the conceptual meta-level of transposition or interference between manifest and scientific images, not at the first-order ontological level, which would indeed be unacceptably metaphysical.

Extinction is not, therefore, issued from our image of the world itself but rather as a kind of a fact of reason that becomes clear as the scientific image is unveiled and we face it as encompassing our own predicament. Extinction is not a scientific item but rather an application of the scientific image to the fate of reason, therefore it is something transcendental but maybe in an odd way: it would be like something that is necessary and yet a posteriori. Enlightenment has presented it to reason and yet it draws an outer boundary to it. What matters for the anti-vitalist Brassier, as I take him, is not that things turn into other things but rather that they extinguish and, more to the point, that concept mongers with their supposed all-pervasive scope are to be extinguished. This is a message from enlightenment, and a necessary one. Not a scientific conclusion but still drawn from the scientific image.

It is interesting to compare this strategy to ground something beyond the correlationist circle with what I take to be the (speculative) vitalist one. The latter will proceed (speculatively) as follows: conceptualization as we experience it is a case of something that happens more broadly, it has features in common with, say, any prehension – or any alliance or any test of force. (Notice that my vitalist here is crucially process-based, but I guess it doesn't matter much in this context as something similar could maybe be said about a Nietzschean or a Bergsonian version.) The idea – again a speculative one – is to resist the claim that reason or conceptualisation is overwhelmingly sui generis and anomalous. The life of a concept (and of concept mongers) belong in an environment and disclose elements of it. While eliminativism nihilism (or transcendental anti-vitalism) brings extinction from the scientific image towards concept mongers, (speculative) vitalism takes features of the concept-monger activity towards a broader context. In both cases, an interchange with what ought to be outside establishes an outer realm for the sphere of correlation. The difference is that vitalism is not dependent on a crucial distinction between concept mongers and the rest of the world while anti-vitalism is not dependent on a (speculative) operation of generalizing some features of conceptualization.

I take the opportunity to briefly reflect on the way Brassier makes use of his emphasis in the distinction between concepts and objects in C&O. Firstly, talking about Latour he says:

Irreductionism is a species of correlationism: the philosopheme according to
which the human and the non-human, society and nature, mind and world, can only
be understood as reciprocally correlated, mutually interdependent poles of a fundamental relation.

” C&O 24

It seems to me that here there lies a confusion of epistemology and ontology. We are part of a broader network of alliances in our conceptual abilities but the reverse is not the case. The link between between us and nature is at most one of epistemological dependence, it is by means of our practices that we find out about the alliances and forces that compose nature. It is an application of the speculative method. Whereas the generalization of process is part of a view on how things are. There is no fundamental relation but a general process with different instantiations. Latour's efforts is one of trying to understand concepts in its interrelation with objects and not as a separate, sui generis structure capable of representational powers. Brassier proceeds:

Thus Latour’s reduction of things to concepts (objects to ‘actants’)
is of a piece with his reduction of concepts to things (‘truth’ to force).

C&O 27

Latour's actant is not a concept. A concept could be an actant but it is more likely to be part of a network, for Latour. It is not about reducing concepts to things, it is again about presenting a metaphysics that doesn't appeal to representation as the sole interaction between concepts and anything else. Actants are, for Latour, to use a worn-out phrase, part of the furniture of the universe. Objects – at least in the sense of items with substracta beyond their properties and relations – are not. It is a metaphysical claim grounded, I guess, by a speculative operation. It is not a reduction of things to concepts but an attempt to place concepts within a framework of what there is.

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