Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Introduction to Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction

These captions under pictures are getting really boring.

At the end of D&G's Anti-Oedipus, we learn about the idea of "rupturing causality." We see causality manifesting itself from an interested party (an interested personality). "So this then that" is the semantical operation of being. Something happens, therefore it means this. In the last post I discussed wanting to move into the anti-correlationist theory of speculative realism to get a deeper understanding of this possibility of obviating causality. The first text to take on regarding this possibility is Ray Brassier's Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. While this is the first text we will take on, Ray Brassier doesn't start this anti-correlationist thought. If it finds its "historical place," it's in a discussion between Francios Laruelle and Derrida in 1988 (This discussion can be read here: This discussion I will want to do a close read on in at least 2 parts after the analysis of Enlightenment and Extinction. The reason for choosing Enlightenment and Extinction first is from an instinct of it being a good general overview of the basics of speculative realism. As it was published in 2007, it's relatively recent. It will be the first text I do a close analysis of from an author who isn't dead yet. This is also exciting. How many times does one read an author and think to themselves, "man, I wish they were still alive to see what they think today?" In this sense, the reading of the history of philosophy is a constant catching up to writers who aren't dead yet. You will be able to address them while they're alive and you have the basic grounds of western conceptual thought under your belt to understand the concepts and verbiage from their text (if one has done somewhat of a detailed reading of western philosophy). For better or worse, without historical perspective, neither I, nor Brassier can refer to the proper name of "Hegel" without a reading of "Hegel." I say "for better or worse" because the impulse to obviate the historical perspective from experience in speculative realism is so obvious that a mere skimming over the basic texts scream this at you. This impulse of course is not new and doesn't become vogue with the "officiality" of speculative realism. The critique of the historical perspective defining experience comes in its "formal form" as early as Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition as far as the 20th century is concerned. This will be a topic to be addressed throughout our acquaintance with speculative realism; the usage of the historical perspective when trying to become a non-historical perspective. It's this idea that the Derrida-Laruelle discussion illuminates very well. With Ray Brassier though, we hope to gain a general overview of speculative realism in order to go deeper into its other authors and other works by Brassier himself. This post then will be a very basic introduction to what Enlightenment and Extinction is trying to explain. When we get further and deeper into the text we will uncover the substance behind the preface and the introduction (as always with a book of this conceptual magnitude). We will see from the beginning that Brassier is not simply speaking on behalf of anti-correlationsism, but nihilism. The connection between the two will become obvious through the reading of this text. To start off though, lets try to understand the basics of the title of the text and let Brassier speak for himself.

Firstly, lets take a close look at the title of this book. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Nihil is latin for "nothing." "Unbound" is not being bound. From this we can understand Nihil Unbound conceptually as a nothingness that is not bound. We gain the sense that the nothingness being conveyed by Brassier is not going to have a meaning. It's not going to be bound by meaning. Its nothingness is boundless. Enlightenment and Extinction. Enlightenment is reason's understanding of an experience that happened previous to "itself." One becomes enlightened when a thought comes to one's head. Classically understood, enlightenment happens from a realization from a past experience. This realization gives meaning to "something that happened." The meaning is an extra of something that always happens. Enlightenment in this title is connected to Extinction. Extinction of course is death and an end. We can infer from this part of the title that there is something combining realization and death. When we realize something, we die. The amount of ways of reading this is too vast to try to elaborate on now. This will speak for itself throughout the text. For now though, we have a nothingness that is not bound that is tied to a realization that brings about death. At the very least, we can infer that when one realizes themselves, they are supposed to die into a nothingness that has no meaning a contrario to the Hegelian supposition of the nothing that is still something. At the very least we can infer that man (being) sees himself in a relationship to something outside of himself and defines himself as such, rather than understanding the fact that what is outside of itself is not a matter of understanding. Whether these characterizations of inference will be brought out through this text remains to be seen. A general guess at the title is a good start to throwing oneself into the text though. Now that we have taken our guesses at the text, lets let Brassier speak for himself from the very beginning. "This term 'nihilism' has a hackneyed quality. Too much has been written on the topic , and any sense of urgency that the word might once has communicated has been dulled by overexposure. The result is a vocable tainted by dreary over-familiarity and nebulous indeterminacy. Nevertheless, few other topics of philosophical debate exert such an immediate grip on people with little or no interest in the problems of philosophy as the claim of nihilism in its most 'naive' acceptation: existence is worthless." From this we understand that Brassier takes nihilism seriously. Anybody who is passionate about anything in experience will be frustrated by the over-popularization of what's considered an important concept by that thinker. Brassier sees no sense of urgency in the term. He sees no one having a grasp of nihilism beyond its hackneyed connotation of "existence is worthless." Brassier asks us not to jump out of our seats at this hackneyed meaning. Brassier's compulsion is to take nihilism seriously as an opportunity, not as a system of personal identification which would be its absolute worst function and form. He admits this to himself at the beginning of of Enlightenment and Extinction. "This book was spurred by the conviction that this apparently banal assertion harbors hidden depths which have yet to be sounded by philosophers..." For Brassier, there are hidden depths beyond nihilism's popularized connotations of "existence is meaningless." These depths we will explore through this text. To start off, it would be good to say what nihilism is not. This negative impulse will serve us in understanding its affirmative and opportunistic function. "First and foremost, it does not treat nihilism as a disease, requiring diagnosis and the recommendation of an antidote. But neither does it extol the pathos of finitude as a bulwark against metaphysical hubris..." At the very least, the concept of nihilism is not to be understood as a problem. This nihilistic concept is an explanation and an opportunity, not a psychological disease that needs to be "cured." On the other hand, this concept is not to be understood as a social call to experiential relativism regardless of how much the latter may be observed in the concept when it's fleshed out. There's a sense that Brassier is aiming at general Heideggerianism when he sees nihilism not as something to be understood in terms of privileging finitude against classical metaphysics. We can sense that finitude becomes a transcendental concept for Brassier and hence lacks the substance of nihilism's "quality" by this transcendence, regardless of how secular the concept of "finitude" may be. A transcendental concept need not be simply religious to give the thinker a sense of well-being. Giving myself the luxury of generalization, I would say that right now (culturally speaking) is a heightened time of situating secularized idols, whether this be passive pantheism (E.G. tarot cards) or hyper-aware environmentalism. As we learn from Nietzsche, the Christian God can be dead while God(s) still remain (literally, Nietzsche's impulse to call his text Twilight of the Idols). Brassier wants to warn the reader from nostalagizing finitude in hopes of curtailing the self-satisfied nature that being in general takes. It's this self-satisfied quality to being that will make being not understand the depths of nihilism, and instead where shirts with skulls on the front as a grand finale to ones identity finding. As was stated above, this would be the opposite of nihilism's impulse, and really any thinking that could be called philosophical. In general, the protection of a concept from a stabilized identity is a conspicuous philosophical gesture. This loyalty is large with Brassier's desire of understanding nihilism. Nihilism is neither a problem nor a solution. Death as God is not a solution when there's no problem to begin with. Instead of seeing nihilism as a problem or a transcendental solution, Brassier sees nihilism as "an achievement of intellectual maturity." As we watch the Twilight of the Idols, we are growing up. Also, what nihilism is not, is "a pathological exacerbation of subjectivism, which annuls the world and reduces reality to a correlate of the absolute ego, but on the contrary is the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which, despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the 'values' and 'meanings' which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable. Nature is not our or anyone's 'home,' nor a particularly beneficent progenitor. Philosophers would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem." I let Brassier speak here beyond the point I wanted to intend to give the reader a more direct gateway to Brassier's impulse. Certainly, seeing the possibility of Philosophy as a "pathetic twinge of human self-esteem" speaks loudly. Much like Husserl, Brassier sees Philosophy as a mature opportunity for being, not a subjective identification of topical "meaningfulness." If the mind tells us anything for the realist, it's that this mind-reality happens regardless of our presupposition of "human freedom." The mind happens regardless of what we think of as "valuable" and "meaningful" which for Brassier are expressions to make what we call "nature" more hospitable. It will be interesting to understand how Brassier explains this phenomena of the "belief in human freedom." It will be interesting to see how Brassier explains "belief" in general. But to our point, the mind independent reality for the realist is a mind that happens without the figurative explanations of language. With this in mind, we can understand Brassier as relying on cognitive science and "hard science." If the "hard science" of the mind should rely on metaphors itself, it will be closer to the realist conception that offers no end to its investigations. Scientific metaphor will be more faithful to philosophical inquiry than freedom speak, so to speak. With a closer look at the scientific nature of "Nature," we will see that "Nature" is not our home nor a particularly beneficent progenitor. "Nature" is not here to help us out. "Nature" can certainly harm us and this can be seen not only in natural disasters but more specific and interesting examples like the self-cannibalism of leaf-insects which Brassier goes into later in the text. It's with this in mind that Philosophy should not provide itself an end and meaning ahead of time in its investigations if its to be a rigorous science that acts "despite the presumptions of human narcissism." Again, it will be interesting to understand the nihilistic-realist understanding of the "presumptions of human narcissism" that Brassier realizes exists.

For Brassier, "nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity." "Thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living; indeed, they can and have been pitted against the latter." It's with this in mind that as readers we need to be thinkers first and foremost rather than "living beings" with this text if we are to read it faithfully. We can't see nihilism as a "problem" that needs to be solved, and even a "problem that can't be solved" as we eternally sulk in despair at the obvious connotation belonging to nihilism. We are to take the concept of nihilism as something much deeper than "happy being sad." It is neither an existential problem nor a psychological problem which basically mean the same things. We have an intellectual opportunity to see things exactly how they are without seeing them "as is," and "for us." This thinking will not know whether it coincides with the benefit of man. It will not know whether it coincides with anything. This thinking starts very much in the same place as the phenomenological epoch but flows into different places than phenomenology, mainly I think because Brassier's nihilism has the luxury of technology on his side (cognitive and ethological technology and discovery). To Brassier's credit though, he has no problem not having a problem with technology. He takes Adorno and Horkheimer to task for nostalogizing a pre-industrial world much like he took Heideggerian finitude to task for nostalogizing a secularized idol of death which we spoke on above. It will be important to understand Brassier's criticism of Adorno and Horkheimer coming up in this text to fully grasp the realist attitude in not mythologizing anything. As readers of D&G's Anti-Oedipus we already have a strong start to de-mythologizing existence. We hope that Brassier will take us further. His criticism of Adorno and Horheimer's purist proclivities will show Brassier as someone faithful to realism. At this very preliminary stage, we can understand Brassier as someone not only faithful to realism and nihilism, but to the task of Philosophy itself.

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