The Adventure of Nihilism: Ray Brassier, ‘Nihil Unbound’

Review of Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, for Parallax 14:4 (2008)

Perhaps familiarity has rendered ‘nihilism’ a toothless philosopheme, but philosophers themselves have lent a hand in its defanging; acknowledging the ‘hackneyed quality’1 associated with the term, in his first monograph Nihil Unbound Ray Brassier sets out to undo this philosophical domestication.

Nihilism looms up from the chasm between intelligibility and meaning, as the ramifications of scientific reason exceed their instrumentality for pragmatic human ends: the more intelligible the universe becomes, by virtue of the mediation of an increasingly complex conceptual apparatus, the more distant seems the prospect of its yielding any meaningful message for us. But Brassier insists that the yearning for meaning and integrity still endemic to modern philosophy can only occlude the true philosophical significance of this evacuation of sense.

Depicting his project as nothing less than a continuation of the core project of enlightenment, Brassier insists that the various battles waged by philosophers against nihilism be understood not as struggles to wrest back enlightenment from the threat of a vicious subjectivism, but as episodes of an ‘anti-Enlightenment revisionism’ which risks depriving us of the ‘invigorating vector of intellectual discovery’ offered by nihilism2. The ‘speculative kernel’ of enlightenment thinking, he argues, consists in the scientific-realist positing of a reality which is intelligible yet wholly autonomous from and indifferent to our thinking. Enlightenment is therefore powered by an engine of negation—for the claim that rational thought indexes a universe in which we are not, represents nothing less than the cognitive anticipation of our own extinction.

Nihil Unbound is best understood as an analysis of the various ways in which this ‘core vector’ of nihilism has been alloyed with extraneous concerns. Brassier patiently strips away these residual philosophemes, exposing the circuitous ruses through which normative philosophical reason has obfuscated the challenge of scientific realism. In the process, the speculative excesses, latent and not-so-latent idealism and anthropomorphism of continental philosophy receive at least as much of a battering as the spontaneous metaphysics grafted onto the workings of science by the Anglo-American tradition. Freed of these encrustations, nihilism becomes a compass for philosophical inquiry, a philosophical logic unto itself.

Examining Wilfred Sellars’s proposal that philosophy attempt to integrate the ‘scientific image’ of the world and of ourselves as complex physical systems with the ‘manifest image’—the spontaneous framework in which we habitually experience the world and each other—Brassier demonstrates how this practicotheoretical management of nihilism can only entail an instrumentalisation of science and a refusal of the ontological vocation it inherently lays claim to Sellars’s ex-student Paul Churchland shatters this pragmatic compact, along with the ‘quasi-sacrosanct status’ (p.9) that long custom lends to the manifest image, but the explanatory power of his neuroscientific viewpoint is undermined by a further equivocation: Churchland commits himself to defining the ‘excellence’ of a theory, not directly in terms of its purchase on reality, but in terms of an evolutionary naturalism which presupposes illegitimately that the increased adaptational ‘success’ of the scientific theory correlates with an increased congruence between its representations and reality. Brassier insists that realism be decoupled not only from Sellars’s ‘alliance with pragmatism’3, but also from this naturalist metaphysics. The ‘subtractive modus operandi’4 of science is radically independent not only of any received folk-psychological model of the world that would claim to underlie it, but also of any model of ‘nature’ that would transcendentally guarantee its superiority to the latter.

Moving on to a very different attempt to localize scientific reason as an episode in the unfolding of a more originary logic, Brassier addresses Adorno and Horkheimer’s claim (in Dialectic of Enlightenment) that the ‘sacrificing’ of myth on the altar of scientific rationalism itself remains symptomatic of a mythical pattern of thought. Brassier deftly subverts Dialectic of Enlightenment’s ‘conceptual core’5 of ‘mimicry, mimesis, and sacrifice’6, recasting scientific rationality as a ‘psychasthenic dispossession by space’7, in which reason slides uncontrollably towards an immanence which dispossesses it of its temporal and reflexive self-differentiation. If the scientific image promises to appease the death drive and to defuse the conflict between the transcendence of the subject and the external world, this promise, says Brassier, is no pathological projection of a fractured consciousness, but indexes a ‘voiding’ potency immanent to the object, which triggers a ‘thanatropic mimicry’8 on the part of thought. Far from thought reaching maturity only in reconciling itself with the ‘natural history’ of myth as transcendental condition for scientific rationalism, therefore, the latter arrives from outside the compass of human myth, and compels us to think a natural history whose ‘irreflexive immanence’9 renders it radically unamenable to the ‘reflective commemoration’ recommended by Adorno and Horkheimer.

Following young French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude (London: Continuum, 2007) Brassier continues by suggesting that the time of science is anathematic to any (‘correlationist’) position for which objective reality is constituted through some originary condition of manifestation. For scientists who study black holes or light from long-deceased stars, experience, life and consciousness, are themselves minor spatiotemporal occurrences—thought is a ‘thing’ with a beginning and an end and so cannot possibly condition such objects. Aside from this unveiling of the ‘diachronicity’ of thought and being, however, Brassier ultimately finds Meillassoux’s own rationalist escape-route from correlationism unsatisfactory, arguing that it reiterates the absolute difference between thought and being and the philosophical privileging of time.

It is perhaps inevitable that Brassier should mobilize Badiou’s endorsement of the mathematical disenchantment of nature. His account notably distinguishes itself from the recent burgeoning reception of Badiou’s work, in concentrating entirely on the latter’s subtractive ontology to the exclusion of the theory of the event. Seeking, like Meillassoux, to overcome the Kantian alternative between dogmatic rationalist metaphysics and agnostic critique, Badiou offers an account of ontology which neither subsumes being under any concept, nor absolutizes our presentative access to it. But having ‘disenchanted ontology’ and showed how ‘being […] means, quite literally, nothing’10, like Meillassoux, Badiou does not sufficiently cleave to ‘the prohibitive consequences of the logic of subtraction’11. The apparent necessity of a mathematical marking of the void in order that inconsistent multiplicity be structured compromises the latter’s autonomy, making the void of being dependent upon its mathematical inscription.

It is the work of François Laruelle which, according to Brassier, finally fulfills the requirements of a ‘transcendental realism’12 robust enough to withstand the anti-realist assaults of post-Kantian philosophy and able to uphold the autonomy of the object from thought. For Laruelle, thought no longer reaches out (whether through correlation or via intellectual intuition) directly to the object; rather the object imposes itself upon a thought which must accord with it: ‘The object thinks through the subject’13 and ‘the reality of the object’ is ‘the ultimate determinant for philosophical thought’14. Brassier subjects Laruelle’s ‘non-philosophy’, supposedly a kind of objective science of the ‘decisional’ logic of philosophy, to some major surgery: Disregarding Laruelle’s all-too-Heideggerian predilection for finding in this decisional structure as the trans-historical identity of philosophy, he understands Laruelle’s true innovation to be a ‘non-dialectical logic of philosophical negation’15 that makes it possible to abjure correlationism without a Meillassouxian return to intellectual intuition or a Badiousian dependence upon inscription. Only Laruelle’s adoption of a ‘non-decisional’ posture which guarantees access to a real which precedes decision, argues Brassier, is able to deploy the unilaterality of the object against the transcendentally-sealed circuits concocted by philosophy in order to forestall thought’s precipitation into the void.

A confrontation ensues with some of the giants of modern philosophy, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Deleuze, during which Brassier pushes home his deposition of the most cherished orthodoxies of continental philosophy, the privileging of time, the meaningfulness of death as horizon for human experience, and (in Nietzsche) the transvaluatory epiphany which brings nihilism over onto the side of life. Against the philosophical privileging of time, Brassier sets the Einsteinian objectification of spacetime, neither correlated with nor dependent upon thought, and affording no privilege to existential ‘temporalization’. Against any transcendentalization of its anthropological meaning, he insists on Death as an ‘originary purposelessness that compels all purposefulness’ an unlife which seizes life, but ‘cannot be seized by it’ haunting it as a unilaterally-inflicted trauma necessarily incommensurate with any lived experience and thus utterly meaningless16. Just as the return to the inorganic state played out in the pathological repetition of Freud’s death-drive cannot be understood as teleological, since death cannot be said to be ‘of’ the living, so the immanent death which subtractive ontology entails for the thinker can by no means be said to belong to the latter. The scientific will to know is the equivalent of repetition in traumatic neurosis, a continued attempt to ‘bind’ the void, or being qua ‘un-bound disturbance of phenomenal consciousness’.17

Although Brassier’s characterisation solely in terms of its ‘subtraction’ from human meaning radically underdetermines ‘science’—and the paucity of discussion of actual scientific work in the book means that we learn little about the procedures through which such ‘subtraction’ operates—his defence of scientific realism and unfolding of its speculative consequences is gripping. He tracks the intricate conceptual convolutions of contemporary continental philosophy without ever indulging in the unfortunate penchant for portentous, gnomic undertones, throwaway references and wordplay which often plague it. Those for whom the style and content of Nihil Unbound proves ‘unsatisfying’ as a result will nevertheless find themselves compelled, in all intellectual conscience, to reflect upon whether such ‘satisfaction’ is an acceptable criterion for reception of a philosophical work: Indeed, this is one dimension of Brassier’s maxim that ‘thinking has interests which do not coincide with those of life’18, and suggests the ironic possibility that his book may itself come to constitute a sort of ‘selective procedure’ à la Nietzsche—that, faced with the uncompromising tenor of Brassier’s assault, some readers might opt for the gentler half-truths and accommodations that make life and, one might say, the enjoyment of philosophy, possible. And indeed, one can always choose life; but Brassier makes it very difficult to twist free of the accusation that in doing so, one chooses against philosophical probity.

The other side of this coin, however, is that one cannot help feeling that some of the most pressing consequences of his project are occluded by such a rigid delimitation of philosophy. Granted that nihilism has a ‘fundamental philosophical importance’19 beyond the existential and cultural ramifications over which so much ink has been spilled, it does not necessarily follow, as Brassier seems to insist, that philosophy ought to be purified of any reflections upon the cultural consequences of scientific ontology. A refusal by philosophy to take ownership of such questions surely risks abandoning history to the vicissitudes of Capital’s exploitative deployment of both manifest and scientific images. Frustratingly, despite various intimations, in this volume Brassier has little to say on the connection between capitalism and nihilism, or on any cultural ramifications the logic of nihilism may have.

However, it is evident that, absent any defence of the manifest image, possibilities for radical transformation of human culture loom large: At his most speculative, Churchland himself contemplates the possibility of a cultural shift towards a self-understanding in terms of the scientific image. This ‘cognitive catastrophe’20 could be realised only through a widespread cultural transformation that itself realised the ‘plasticity of mind’ discussed by Churchland. Yet in those cultural arenas which might engineer such a shift, we find plenty of nostalgia but few signs of anyone precipitating us headlong into the adventure of nihilism. Maybe Brassier has the dynamite, but who will light the fuse?

Adopting Badiou’s terminology, we could say that, qua treatise on ontology, Nihil Unbound still demands a philosophy that will ‘compossibilize’ it with other procedures. In its absence, Brassier risks advocating a cultural sequestration of philosophy, a vision of gnostic enlightenment: Refusing the practico-theoretical compromise à la Sellars, Brassier’s ‘subtractive ascesis’21 seems to countenance a resignation to the perennial impossibility of cultural flesh becoming equal to the rigor-mortis of nihilist thought. Warning us (and Badiou) against sacrificing the stringency of the latter to our impatience for political intervention, he consigns us to being walking embodiments of the irresolution of the cultural problem of nihilism—enlightened—that is to say, already-dead—philosophers listlessly shopping our way to extinction alongside our fellow zombies.

These observations, however, should only go to emphasize how consequential a philosophical project Nihil Unbound announces: it is a powerfully original work which determinedly sets in motion profound and searching questions about philosophy in its relation to the universe described by scientific thought, and to human ends. ‘Philosophy,’ challenges Brassier, ‘should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem’22. And indeed, a part of the intellectual demand this book makes on its readers lies in its relentless defiance of everything liable to make the practice of philosophy a comfortably ponderous and self-satisfied affair. Forcibly disabusing us of the assumption that we have somehow dealt with the problem of nihilism, this book reawakens, and even intensifies, the troubling, disruptive power for thought that it once heralded: As Brassier persuades us, as far as nihilism is concerned, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

  1. R. Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), x
  2. Ibid., xi
  3. Ibid., 31
  4. Ibid., 25
  5. Ibid., 32
  6. Ibid., 33
  7. Ibid., 44
  8. Ibid., 43
  9. Ibid., 48
  10. Ibid., 116
  11. Ibid., 101
  12. Ibid., 118
  13. Ibid., 149
  14. Ibid., 203
  15. Ibid., 120
  16. Ibid., 236
  17. Ibid., 238
  18. Ibid., xi
  19. Ibid., x
  20. Ibid., 9
  21. Ibid., 101
  22. Ibid., xi