Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Articles > Volume 122 Issue 6 November/December 2007 >


Nihil Unbound by Ray Brassier
Daniel Miller gets to grips with nihilism
BY Daniel Miller

Today, the power of faith – or what George Bush calls his gut – is a force in the world. Many rationalists have tried to confront this situation, and have mainly pursued two different strategies. Some have tried to fight faith directly, pitching scientific beliefs against religious ones. Others have worked for a compromise, arguing that reason and faith are two equal partners in a combined search for meaning. So far, neither of these strategies has met with much success. [I THINK MARXISTS WOULD SUPPORT THE FIRST POINT OF VIEW-- SCIENTIFIC VIEWS ARE MORE REALITY BASED THAN THOSE OF SUPERNATURALISM]

This suggests that a new approach is required, and this book proposes one. According to Ray Brassier, the full coruscating radicalism of the Enlightenment legacy must be upheld at all costs, against apartheid appeasements, and especially against attempts to defend it on the wrong grounds. [CERTAINLY MARXISTS WOULD AGREE-- MARXISM IS A PRODUCT OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT]

But pitching the case for reason in the terms of a somehow superior set of beliefs is regressive. “Philosophy,” he writes, “should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem.” In Brassier’s view, enlightenment is not an accomplished moral achievement for which we can pat ourselves on the back, but rather an “invigorating vector of intellectual discovery” that, as intellectual creatures, we are obliged to pursue right through to its end.

Brassier has a particular end in mind. This is the inexorable fact of extinction, the polemical pivot of this book. “[T]he earth will be incinerated by the sun 4 billion years hence; all the stars in the universe will stop shining in 100 trillion years; and eventually, one trillion, trillion, trillion years from now, all matter in the cosmos will disintegrate.” [THIS IS JUST AS BAD AS RELIGIOUS DOGMA. INDIVIDUAL HUMANS COME AND GO BUT SCIENCE HAS NOT MADE ANY FINAL DETERMINATION SUCH AS BRASSIER CONCLUDES. SCIENTISTS STILL ARGUE WHETHER WE LIVE IN A UNIVERSE OR A MULTI-VERSE, OR IF THE BIG BANG LEADS TO THE BIG CRUNCH AND EVERYTHING STARTS OVER AGAIN. NO ONE EVEN KNOWS WHAT TRILLIONS OF YEARS MEANS.]

For Brassier, these facts are of central philosophical import. In his view, because extinction is the inevitable fate of existence, in logical time it has already occurred. “The subject of philosophy is already dead,” Brassier writes, “and ... philosophy is neither a medium of affirmation nor a source of justification, but rather the organon of extinction.”[THIS DOES NOT MAKE SENSE. IF ONE OF THE JOBS OF PHILOSOPHY IS TO DEAL WITH HUMAN PROBLEMS AND WHAT KIND OF JUST SOCIETY WE CAN LIVE IN (BEFORE WE BECOME EXTINCT THAT IS) THEN TO SAY THE SUBJECT OF PHILOSOPHY IS ALREADY EXTINCT IS PREMATURE].

Brassier’s basic claim is epistemological. In his understanding, humanity ultimately has no intrinsic value, and it is the duty of rational thought to embrace this fact. “[E]xistence is worthless,” he writes, “and nihilism is ... the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality which ... 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.” [THIS IS OLD HAT (SARTRE). YOU STILL HAVE TO FEED THE CHILDREN. MARXISTS HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN THIS AND STILL THINK FIGHTING FOR THE WORKING CLASS IS WORTHWHILE. THIS IS JUST PETTY BOURGEOIS DEFEATISM ON BRASSIER'S PART.]

By “nihilism” Brassier means a reality shorn of sentimental opiates. For him, healthy philosophy must confront the fact of an oblivious universe without blinking. This steely summons represents the point of departure for this book as a whole. [YES, AND SO?]

The bulk of Nihil Unbound is composed of a series of readings of weighty philosophical texts. The principal players here are the American brain scientist Paul Churchland and the French triad of Quentin Meillasoux, Alain Badiou and Fran├žois Laruelle. This is an idiosyncratic assembly, united more by a shared radicalism then by any shared interests. Brassier does not pretend otherwise. The stance he adopts towards them is that of a scavenger, not a mediator.

Armed with his all-nullifying event of extinction, Brassier wields it like a kind of scalpel, operating to cut the last soft flesh away from the clean white bones of these figures. The idea is to assemble a sturdy conceptual architecture, able to stand on its own without supernatural support. [AN ANTI-SUPERNATURAL PHILOSOPHY IS NOTHING NEW.]

For each of these figures, the basic line is the same: “One more effort, philosophers, if you would be realists!” The only exception to this pattern is the elusive and obscure Fran├žois Laruelle, the philosopher who developed a branch of philosophy he calls “non-philosophy”. Brassier is possibly the only man in the world to have read Laruelle, and his take on him is wholly positive. As he understands it: “Laruelle provides the key to understanding the diachrony inherent in what Meillasoux calls ‘absolute time’ and allows us to appreciate that ‘it is no longer thought that determines the object, whether through representation or intuition, but rather the object that seizes thought, and forces it to think it ... according to it.’”[MARX, ENGELS AND LENIN ARRIVED AT THIS POINT LONG AGO!]

Let me confess at this point that I have only a dim inkling, at best, of what this might mean. Written in an extraordinary form of technical prose, Nihil Unbound is intended for a specialised audience, and shows it. Throughout this book, one is never quite sure whether it is the ideas that are difficult, or the style. [IT MUST BE THE STYLE.] This is a particular shame since at several points in this book Brassier reveals a brilliantly dramatic touch that he could easily have used more often.

Ultimately, this book is a stepping-stone to potentially greater things. It does not really accomplish what it sets out to achieve, but rather only sets the stage for it. What it works towards is a revitalised theory that would permit a truly rational stance on reality. If this were to be gained, the faithful could be permitted to scrabble around in the basement looking for the light switch as much as they liked, because rationalists would hold in their hands the map to the entire house. [NOT A VERY WELL FINANCED HOUSE I'M AFRAID. THE FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF MARXISM WILL HAVE TO FORECLOSE ON IT.]

Nihil Unbound is published by Palgrave