Dialogical Response to Nihil Unbound

  1. Logical Regression Says:
    March 10, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    The book has been out for a while now (Ray Brassier’s ‘Nihil Unbound’ released in the latter part of 2007) – I’d really appreciate any opinions on it as I’m addressing it as part of my thesis.

  2. Wilhelm Fliess Says:
    March 11, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    Good luck my friend! No seriously, it would be great to get a discussion going about Brassier’s old thesis and his new book: it’s probably the most interesting work out right now…hope you manage to find some interlocuters who are up to the job!

  3. Logical Regression Says:
    March 12, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    OK, I will get back to you with some thoughts over the next week. Please tell interested persons and we can try and unpick this difficult text.

  4. Wilhelm Fliess Says:
    March 15, 2008 at 5:10 am

    Great, I look forward to your response. I’ll be interested to see what you consider to be the main claims of the book, because aside from the general claims put forward in the preface, I’m still not sure exactly what these claims are. But it works perfectly well as a sharp critique of all the main players in continental philosophy (including a critique of Laruelle, which Miller’s otherwise excellent review failed to notice). My own crude critical hunch about the book relates to the way there seems to be no role for art or aesthetic construction in his philosophy. What is the status of art for Ray Brassier? I’m sure that he doesn’t consider art to be merely a form of qualia, or simply another means of communication. Awhile back there was a piece published in Multitudes about one of his favourite Noise bands, and towards the end of his thesis there’s this enigmatic invocation of a Universal Noise which will resist capitalism exchange, yet I’m not sure how concepts like intelligibility, and his brand of realism, can account for the role of experimentation, or creation in the arts and sciences. In this regard I find Deleuze and Guattari’s late philosophy to be more versatile, but I’m willing to be put straight on this issue. Why is the issue of art of critical importance for understanding Brassier’s project? Because his is a nihilism that would do away with that last comforting thought, that life can be justified aesthetically. My hunch is that there’s a disavowed, residual aesthetics in speculative realism… Anyway, will try and get others involved in this thread too-

  5. Wilhelm Fliess Says:
    March 15, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Here’s link to the Brassier article, ‘Genre is Obsolete’:


  6. Logical Regression Says:
    March 16, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Yes, Brassier appears to afford no significance to ‘art’ even in his criticisms of Adorno and Horkheimer, which is suprising considering the importance of art to the former’s overall project. Arguably, in following Brassier’s account, one would have to take art (going on the account of Brassier, Churchland, Meillassoux, et al.) to be inscribed within the wider system Brassier espouses, which reduces the human mind to a random system of chemical reactions in line with neuro-scientific discovery. Going on this argument, art can be of little consequence philosophically (as regards ‘truth’), aside from testifying to the lengths that the human will go to to feign ‘meaning’ in a ‘meaningless’ universe.
    However, I would argue (and will continue to) that art in its affirmation of its own meaninglessness – by dint of what art is, as, arguably, the designation of objects as existent, and as having ‘meaning’, for their own sake – can testify to the continued possibility of meaning even as the output of human activity – i.e. ‘the artist’ (governed as it is by random material occurrences).
    This accords rather with another argument I have with Brassier’s work that states that his seeming proclamation that life has no inherent meaning (as opposed to a post-Kantian stance that that tries to maintain meaning as an a priori condition of consciousness) is a bias that contradicts itself, on account of the fact that in a Universe with no meaning the terms ‘meaning’ and ‘no meaning’ are of equal measure – they both occur as proclamations issued from human minds that only think themselves to have the power of logical discrimination: in this case whether to proclaim a meaning or not is an irrelevance – the opposed statements are purely flipsides of a personal philosophical bias that in any case ‘does not exist’. In this sense, providing that we believe ourselves to have conscious discriminating minds, and providing we cannot really know for sure the truth as to whether we have meaning or not(an argument I can divulge later in this thread), arts status as the field which has as its sole purpose the proclamation of ‘meaning’ (or beauty) despite its meaninglessness (which, again, is inherent in the notion of ‘art’) is viable, and, indeed, ethically necessary. In this case I would argue ‘art’ to be of greater import to the philosopher than ’science’, in direct contradiction to Brassier’s claims.

  7. Logical Regression Says:
    March 16, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    […] And to answer your question, the main aims of the book appear to me to be those laid out in the preface. Several philosophers and thinkers are addressed in communicating these aims, principle amongst them Meillossaux, Adorno and Horkeimer, Kant, Hegel, Badiou, Laruelle Heidegger, Nietzcshe, Lyotard, Levinas and Freud. The main aim of the book is to discredit philosophical accounts that place existence as having a direct correlate to occurrences in the human mind, as it is argued that they are mere inheritors of mythic and Judaeo-Christian tradition. Taking statements about archaic history together with reliable scientific predictions Brassier points out that human consciousness is but a blip on the scientific radar as it registers the history of our Universe.
    Personally I can speak most reasonably about what I understand best, and that is Brassier’s accounts of Adornianism and Nietzschianism, as well as his account of the importance of neuro-scientific study. On all three counts I would argue that Brassier’s extreme (nay, ‘evangelical’) nihilism demonstrates a peculiar bias that could be seen as a ‘belief’ of sorts and thus is out of keeping with its own rationalist claims, which demand non-bias.

  8. The Conformist Says:
    March 16, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    The mobilization of Laruelle’s non-dialectical unilateralization is intended to annul the distinction of meaning and meaninglessness, which are, in any case, both folk-psychological terms. In this respect, the real indexes a ‘positive insignificance’ contra the collapse into relativism and perspectivism that ultimately lands Nietzsche in trouble.

    It is simply not the case that human ‘meaning’ is simply reduced to the random fluctuations of matter etc.., rather, the point is that meaning can not be upheld as the transcendental vanguard that insures some form of qualitative interiority or other unbreachable realm. What cogsci a la Churchland, Dennett, Metzinger, offer, is a philosophical charge that states that ‘meaning’, qualia etc. are in fact perfectly amenable to objective scientific description; they can be completely (without affective or phenomenological excess) explained with regard to underlying insensate, inorganic, insignificant processes.

+++ Editor (LR): We have here to thank The Conformist, who appears very well informed, and to apologise for not following up on her/his statement fully (although some attempt is made below, in the main text). It just was not possible to sustain a dialogue on two fronts. However, in response to her/his comment, I think it higlights precisely Brassier’s failing, if anything. It is unclear what is intended by Brassier’s project if all that is achieved is to lay the account for ‘meaning’ at the foot of ‘underlying insensate, inorganic, insignificant processes’, whilst claiming that this does not harm meaning (‘qualia etc’.) as such. There is a reflexivity to this argument that is akin to watching ‘truth’ presented as in a hall of mirrors, wherein every image is indiscernible from a reflection of the original intended image (taking that the original image=meaning): We can have no idea if we are seeing real ‘truth’, or a refracted form. Put simply, if ‘meaning’ is designated as possible only on account of underlying processes, one wonders just which of these processes (or almalgamation of processes) makes such a designation possible? Is not every proclamation of ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’, or of the origins of either, dependent on those underlying arbitary processes?

As such, it is not possible to stand aside from these processes, and, indeed, any belief – even those that are scientifically founded – that we have found the originary cause of human conciousness, could in any case be a mere reflection of our own thought projections – they being in fact predicated on underlaying processes that we cannot understand or access. I try not to beggar the point too much, but a repetitive reiteration of this failing goes precisely to show where the fault lies – in a perpetual reflection of the base problem of philosophy (the subject’s inability to know for sure that it really knows what it knows!), that is most distant from truth whenever it claims to truly know that truth: Yes, science is as perverse as religion, and no amount of criticism aimed at the latter (and its agnostic and atheistic correlates) will absolve the former.

And here is where Brassier’s attempt royally fails, as the extent of his own complicity within processes of thought that will show up biased results (the philospher’s mind being ever amienable to ‘wishful thinking’, the likes of which Brassier would like to see banished) can never be itself wished away. The only way, in my mind, out of this quandary, is to accept as given the impossibility of the mind perceiving the truth re; there being meaning in life or not – and the bases of that ‘meaning’ – and to then predicate a ‘meaning’ construed under those terms – a meaning based upon there being no real existent meaning, and, thereby, not a ‘rescue’ of meaning by any measure: Meaning must be construed as co-existent with its opposite, but must be seen as no less ‘meaningful’ for this fact. It is here that Aesthetics becomes central as recourse to the artwork, and the illusion it plays in creating a ‘meaning’ despite its inherent meaninglessness provides us with the grounds upon which such an undertaking might be achieved with regards to ‘life’ itself.+++

[The re-numbering, from ‘1.’ of the entries here denotes the passing of the dialogue from ‘Larval Subjects’ to this current ‘blog’ site. There is also a marked difference in the material approached. Whilst the broad subject remains the same, a shift is made towards a more direct consideration of ‘art’, and, later, ‘conceptualism’.]

  1. Wilhelm Fliess Says:
    March 17, 2008 at 4:27 am

    Logical Progression, thanks, this seems like a good summary of what is at stake in Nihil Unbound, and it’s great to discover that I’m not the only one who thinks that the question of art might be the key to determining the value of Brassier’s work. Now before I carry out any further research, here’s a preliminary response to your post:

    1) Just because Ray Brassier (and perhaps the other philosophers grouped under the title ‘Speculative Realism’, which I think we should from now on refrain from referring to, for the sake of clarity: Brassier’s work is complicated enough!) believes that the human mind can ultimately be explained by physical and chemical processes, does it necessarily follow that ‘art can only be of little consequence’ for his philosophy? I agree with you that there seems to be an almost ‘evangelical’ tone to his nihilism, perhaps Brassier would value art which contributes to the displacement of Man as source of meaning for the universe? I’m hoping that a close reading of his essay ‘Genre is Obsolete’ might provide us with an outline of his position on art.

    2) This leads on to my second point: I’m sure that for Brassier, art is not a legitimate realm of mystificatory Being. The significance of art lies not in its evocations of an originary nature which must be forever interpreted. When you write that ‘art in its affirmation of its own meaninglessness can testify to the continued possibility of meaning’, what kind of ‘meaning’ are we talking about here?
    I’m resistant to the idea that art contains hidden truths, or that it provides a platform upon which ‘meaning’ for the intentional subject can be grounded, because then it seems to me that art becomes nothing more than a form of communication which needs to be hermeneutically decoded. Following Deleuze and Guattari, my preference is for a physiological conception of art, as something which affects us, transforms us, creates a ‘new partition of the sensible’ (Ranciere) and thereby creates ‘a new people, a new earth’. (Deleuze and Guattari)

    3) No doubt this conception of art is something which Brassier would consider to be incurably Romantic. I believe that he does subscribe to the notion that life IS inescapably ‘meaningful’, but only according to the intrinsic biological teleology of the finite organism, rather than it being an a priori (transcendental) condition of human consciousness. However, Brassier doesn’t seem to consider the idea that human beings might be capable of transforming themselves through the artistic construction of their material environments, perhaps because for him these transformations don’t go far enough, and can only be accounted for through a feeble phenomenology of sensation. How can we assess the way that art and culture (understood as ‘institutions of instinct’) have really transformed humanity, through endless descriptions of qualia? Instead, the idea that the human species might be genetically remodelled in order to make it isomorphic with capital is viewed as a potentially positive outcome of technological developments, and getting involved with this process, rather than lamenting for the lost original meaning of humanity, is for Brassier a political exigency.

    4) When you write about ‘the fact that in a universe with no meaning, the terms ‘meaning’ and ‘no meaning’ are of equal measure’, I assume you are alluding to Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence. After learning that the world has no intrinsic unity, origin, or purpose, it is only the artist (as overman) who can reinvest the world with value, and redeem our meaningless suffering. Yet Brassier believes that Nietzsche’s aesthetic transvaluation illegitimately endows human-beings ‘with an infinite reservoir of spiritual energy which furnishes them with an inexhaustible capacity for physical resilience’. Justifying life through art amounts to investing suffering with meaning, which will ‘automatically reinscribe woe into a spiritual calculus which subordinates present suffering to some recollected or longed-for happiness.’ Brassier thinks it is crucial to do away with this redemptive valuation, but I would question his seemingly literalist reading of Nietzsche’s usage of the terms ’suffering’ and ‘pleasure’. Nietzsche insists that ‘joy is deeper than the heart’s agony’, not because human beings as finite organisms have the physical capacity to experience more pleasure than pain if only they choose to affirm life, but because the human species transforms what it experiences as pleasurable and painful through its collective culture, understood as the highest expressions of the (inhuman) will to power. By this I mean the intensification of experience which is concomitant with the constructions of culture (art in its broadest sense, and not a million miles away from Marxian notions of collective labour) through which the limited pleasures of the finite organism takes ever more circuitous routes to find satisfaction.

    5) I’ll draw this long post to a close with what I consider to be the main problem with the position I’ve just put forward, the status of the will to power as a speculative biological impulse. if Nietzsche’s will to power will be re-constructed by Freud as the death-drive, and transformed into the concept of desire by Deleuze and Guattari, then it is also worth remembering that it began life as a vitalist principle in Romantic philosophy, not unlike Schiller’s concept of the ‘play-drive’. My question is, on what grounds can we attribute such a striving capacity (conatus) to life? Life is redeemed through art as the expression of the inhuman will to power which intensifies it, but how does this anthropomorphic notion apply to life as a whole, to unicellular organisms, for instance, to use Brassier’s example? Is this not just a postulation of a vital capacity to life as a means of comforting ourselves, a new god to replace the old one? I will wait patiently for your reply.

  2. Wilhelm Fliess Says:
    March 17, 2008 at 4:38 am

    Apologies to The Conformist, who seems to have already partly answered my question before I finished writing it! I haven’t quite got my head around the chapter on Laruelle yet, but I’m working on it…

  3. Wilhelm Fliess Says:
    March 17, 2008 at 6:56 am

    and apologies to Logical Regression, for not following your counter-intuitive name logic!

  4. Logical Regression Says:
    March 17, 2008 at 11:43 am

    ‘What cogsci a la Churchland, Dennett, Metzinger, offer, is a philosophical charge that states that ‘meaning’, qualia etc. are in fact perfectly amenable to objective scientific description; they can be completely (without affective or phenomenological excess) explained with regard to underlying insensate, inorganic, insignificant processes.’
    Yes, but this implies a bias. Churchland is not against meaning per se, but meaning as inherent to ‘being’; he sees meaning as not central to existence, but amenable to it. Meaning is something felt by humans, but to exteriorize it would be to place an anthropomorphic dimension on an otherwise oblivious objective reality; whereas meaning, for the post-Kantians that Brassier derides, is intrinsic to existence. That is, meaning is inscribed in the experience of the subject.
    With regard to Laruelle’s thought; even to nullify the distinction between meaning and non-meaning implies a bias and a ‘decision’. It operates, indeed, on account of a desire to split off the concomitance (as, arguably, dialectical poles are co-dependent) of two poles of a dialectic – ‘subject and object’, ‘life and death’ – in the creation of an apparently independent unified whole, i.e. ‘Laruelle’s non-dialectical unilateralization’. That this conception of existence could be independent of the subject-object dichotomy naively circumvents what could be described as the ‘main complaint’, the principle failing here: the starting point for such a declaration has been an attempt to overcome the distinction between ‘subject’ and ‘object’. On who’s account, then, did a splitting between subject and object occur? If thought must have thought the split between subject and object, in it’s attempting to reconcile subject and object, then under the conditons that thought thought that thought it must be taken that that such a split between subject and object existed for thought. How might any reconciliation between subject and object then have been approached other than a further splitting from that point? Non-dialectical philosophical forms are none other than the subjective pole of the dialectic reckoning its linkedness with the object. Now, as much as its linkedness with the object be a certainty (science shows we are all linked to all things, and we are, in any case, materially composed), its separatedness from the object is a condition of thought itself… even of the thought that ‘wishes’ away the subject-object dialectic.

  5. (cont… Editor[LR] – this lengthy repsonse has been split in order to differentiate the criticism against Laruelle, with that against Brassier, following) Put simply, the distinction between ‘meaning’ and ‘non-meaning’ in any case implies that we live with ‘no meaning’ or ‘non-meaning’, under the terms that we understand meaning. It favours one pole of the dialectic. This is something necessary to such a statement, and cannot be a criticism as such against Brassier’s cause, yet it still demonstrates a bias incompatible with his theory, as he so favours the negative aspect of any dialectic;’non-meaning’, ‘extinction’, ‘death’! The thought that he could approach these elements from anything other than a ‘living’ purview (and in that sense one that is not ‘dead’), would require the kind of spiritual belief that Brassier abjures. Of course, Brassier claims to collapse the dialectic and register life under the aegis of ‘extinction’, but completely, and unaccountably, from my purview, on the account of death… life goes ‘hanging’. He does what Laruelle does (see above), but worse… he collpases the dialectic, not realising that he does so on account of his inscription within the same dialectic, as a subject, but then credits the object (i.e. ‘death’), unwittingly, with this achievement.

  6. Wilhelm Fliess Says:
    March 17, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    Logical Regression, when you write that ‘meaning is intrinsic to existence’, what kind of ‘meaning’ are we talking about? Surely Brassier would argue that although human beings as finite organisms are compelled to find meaning in existence, bound as they are by their specific needs; this pre-theoretical subjective notion of meaning is not as valuable as the insights gained from more objective forms of knowledge, ‘cogsci’ being one example, Spinoza being another. The point is that these more objective, rational forms of knowledge can reveal certain things about the human species which we would prefer not to know: i.e. that we are driven by biological drives rather than free will, or that our solar system will explode in four billion years; hence the reason why philosophy should be ‘the organon of extinction’. If not, then philosophy loses its value as a means by which we can comprehend our existence, and becomes little more than a subjective therapeutics.

    What is this sense of ‘meaning inscribed in the experience of the subject’? A hermeneutics of language? A subjective phenomemology of sensation? Instead of trying to discount the apparently circular logic of his argument (’he argues that life is meaningless but then he must have a notion of meaning to assert that’), it might be more productive to analyse the specific metaphysical (epistemological and ontological) arguments which correspond to his veneration of the natural sciences. Yes, there seems to be an evangelical tone to his enthusiastic nihilism, but is that surprising given that the book originally had ‘gnostic skepticism’ as part of its subtitle? Brassier’s position isn’t arbitrary: his own explicit metaphysical commitments outlined in Nihil Unbound, I would argue that there is an implicit ‘aesthetic’ dimension to it too. It is this ‘constructive’ aspect of Brassier’s philosophy which I am keen on exploring.

  7. Wilhelm Fliess Says:
    March 17, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    Sorry, the second from last line should read ‘Brassier’s position isn’t arbitrary: his own explicit metaphysical commitments ARE outlined in Nihil Unbound, AND I would argue that there is an implicit aesthetic dimension to it too.’

  8. Logical Regression Says:
    March 17, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks, this is interesting: I understand with regard to Nietzsche that Brassier gets very hung up on Nietzsche’s instruction to grasp every joy and pain equally. Whilst Brassier points out that to do so is to accord some spiritual significance to the experience of both joy and pain I take it rather that Nietzsche wished to point out that both were of equal import. i.e. he does what Laruelle does with regard to ‘meaning’ and ‘non-meaning’: neither exist as dialectical oppositions. I would argue that, overall, Brassier does with Nietzsche what he does with Adorno: he takes the endless cycling of suffering and joy (for the latter ‘hope’) as indicative of a wish for redemption when, rather, both of these philosophers do not argue for a redemption, but merely point out that life exists within the circling of death, pleasure under the aegis of pain and joy as concomitant with suffering. Taken in this sense, and against Brassier’s claims philosophy, and art, could be seen as the inscription of the conditions of the possibility of life and meaning coexistent with their opposites, rather than philosophy being taken to be the ‘organon of extinction’. Given that I don’t see anything radical in my readings of Adorno or Nietzsche I still maintain that Brassier’s thought holds a peculiar bias towards an amoral and unaesthetic rationalism – scientism, in a word.
    With regard to Brassier’s piece on Noise we could perform a close reading to see if he gives anything away there. But I have a feeling that he could counter that the piece you refer to was never intended as ‘philosophy’ per se, and in any case, as a separate text to Nihil Unbound perhaps it cannot be criticised in the same breath? +++ Editor (LR): Brassier, incidentally has an interest in ‘Noise’ as the organiser of NoiseTheoryNoise# 1 and 2 – two conferences held at Middlesex University in 2003 and 2004.+++ So, yes, with regard to Brassier’s interest in Noise we could ruminate that he may hold some aesthetic yearnings, but I’m not sure if we could go deeply into this unless he divulges himself where such a link may reside in his theory. We can only gather, arguably, that his dismissal of ‘poesis’throughout Nihil Unbound rules out an interest in ‘art’ (other than in its being dismissed as wish projection).

  9. Wilhelm Fliess Says:
    March 17, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Logical Regression, I’m guessing that the reason why you haven’t yet attempted to define your concepts of art and meaning is because there’s a backlog of posts on this thread. (and before I forget, thanks to Larval Subjects, for enabling this discussion to occur!)

    When you write, “philosophy, and art, could be seen as the inscription of the conditions of the possibility of life and meaning coexistent with their opposites, rather than philosophy being taken to be the ‘organon of extinction’” do you mean that philosophy and art is the intelligible grounds upon which our understanding of life and death, meaning and non-meaning, is given? If so, then I’m not sure that Brassier’s position is so far removed from yours, only he might add that scientific knowledge and logical argument also provide us with an understanding of life and death, meaning and non-meaning, which is not as dependent upon human consciousness as say, a hermeneutic understanding of philosophy and art.

    I’m still interested in what you make of my point five in my earlier post, as it’s a problem that I’m wrestling with at the moment.

    I thought the Multitudes article might be useful for providing us with clues to the aesthetic dimension of Brassier’s philosophy. I still think that this is the case, and I’ve explained why I believe the question of art is of critical importance to his position, and why I believe there’s an implicit aesthetic ‘constructive’ dimension underlying his book. Examining a shorter article specifically concerned with (non-)aesthetics might be an expedient way of figuring out this ‘implicit aesthetics’, regardless of whether ‘he’ will refute my argument!

    Frankly, I’m not interested in trying to simply refute the claims of Nihil Unbound on the basis of a banal argument. His dismissal of the Romantic concepts of poesis, poiesis, and autopoiesis, is a result of a serious study of philosophy as well as the biological sciences, and I believe it is these arguments which we need to clarify if we’re to have an insight into the role of art for Brassier.
    I’ll be busy for the rest of the day but I look forward to your reply.

  10. Logical Regression Says:
    March 17, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    OK, apologies – to define ‘art’ and ‘meaning’:
    Art I would define, for these purposes, in an Adornian sense – art is , as the ‘absolute commodity’, that which can claim to stand aside from a commodified society by mimicking the autonomy of the commodity form. It therefore plays the trick principally of claiming to be other than it is, and on that basis claiming to be ‘free’ and to have ‘meaning’. I would argue, however, that it is unclear whether it could really bear this capacity today, in our contemporary society, when it may be subsumed within the capitalist/rationalist framework before it has a chance to elide it. However, I argue that it is necessary to suppose that art, as the communication of that which is truly ‘autonomous’, ostensibly at least, must be evoked in the sense that its concept allows the potential promise of us transcending the conditions of a reified society.
    With regard to ‘meaning’, I mean to argue for the possibility of their being a meaning even in face of the possibility that there is not a meaning inherent in life: i.e. there is not a meaning that is god-given, neither one that operates by dint of a sensus communis, or in terms of a historical destiny. In light of there being no meaning as such I would like to argue that meaning can be construed, but that it might be in spite of there being no intrinsic ‘meaning’ to life. I.E. It can be construed as the ‘projection’ of meaning via art as illusion.
    – – –
    In response to point 5, then yes I agree entirely that the Will to Power as you consider it could be seen as ‘a new god to replace the old one’. Yet, I would argue that art need not support this position, as art in its illusory capacity does not necessarily support the Will to Power but rather points to ‘meaning’ as ‘illusory’: thus art does not will ‘power’ as such. Art is truthful in that illusion inheres in its very being – yet it continues to exist all the same; thus its truth resides in its inherent untruth. It is in this sense that I believe art could well account for the possibility of ‘meaning’ – even in striving after a meaning that is not a given and does not necessarily exist. It can ‘mean’ something in that it has the capacity to feign meaning no less than the human mind does. Yet, unlike science and rationality, it does not have as its condition a duty to meaning as material truth, and so as a capacity of the human mind is not bound to objective truth as are the aforementioned capacities/disciplines.
    The only terms on which I could see Nietzsche as reflecting this attitude is in an extreme reading of his attitude towards Christ in The Antichrist, where Christ demonstrates his power, given as an example of the Uberman, by ceding all power…by walking to his death willingly. Art essentially does just this in that its striving after perfection is undertaken in the acknowledgment of the impossibility of reaching such perfection. In that sense the will to power as expressed through the artwork could be seen as an expression and acceptance of mortality, of human imperfection, of a lack of meaning, and thus would not be just a new god replacing the old one. But that is to view Nietzsche on account of one extreme interpretation – and there are so many readings of him. In this sense, however, I could find myself quite liking Nietzsche.
    Yes, we could attempt a close reading of the piece from Multitudes. I would be grateful if you would start us off and I am sure I could benefit from this as I have done from our exchange (and thanks to Larval Subjects for the opportunity – I would not have found a worthy debate on the subject elsewhere).
    Yes, I agree there has to be a concentrated effort to address the complexity of Brassier’s text. I would propose that if we are to look at the ‘aesthetic’ in relation to Nihil Unbound the sections on Adorno, Nietzsche and Deleuze would be most useful to us at this point. Thanks.

  11. Wilhelm Fliess Says:
    March 18, 2008 at 8:00 am

    This sounds good to me, it’s the sections on Adorno and Horkheimer, Deleuze and Nietzsche that are most interesting for me too. I will try and extrapolate the key aesthetic arguments from ‘Genre is Obsolete’ today and then see what we can come up with on the Thanatosis of Enlightenment chapter- I’m particularly interested in defining the radically different conceptions of nature used by Adorno and Horkheimer, and Ray Brassier.

  12. Logical Regression Says:
    March 18, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Ok, that sounds good. A close reading of the two would be a grand idea. Look forward to what you initially come up with.

  13. Wilhelm Fliess Says: If a Speculative Realism cannot think aesthetics then this has serious political consequences for their philosophy. To my mind, there is no such thing as a purely rational politics solely based upon axiomatic egalitarian prescriptions. Even a sympathetic reader like Nina Power will concede that Badiou’s axiomatic politics can only function through the postulation of a Feuerbachian minimal humanism, and despite Peter Hallward’s condemnation of ontologies which base their politics upon a notion of something like ‘shared feeling’, I would contend that every specific instantiation of an egalitarian prescription simultaneously requires the implicit postulation of an enriched life. The communist ideal of Marxism only functions if one can imagine a world in which our collective labour becomes the highest joyful expression of our species-being. Collective labour is not a utilitarian ethos which derives its value from the fact that by working together we can be more productive, it is rather a Romantic belief in the idea that there is a joyful aspect in creation: every work will be an unconditioned work of art; desiring-production. This is why I think that finding the aesthetic dimension of the Speculative Realism project is a political necessity
    If the aesthetics of ‘Genre is Obsolete’ are anything to go by, then things do not bode well. The essay begins with Brassier explaining how the term Noise ‘is at once a specific sub-genre of musical vanguardism and a name for what refuses to be subsumed by genre.’ He selects two groups who exemplify this anti-conventional stance of Noise, two groups who are so anti-conventional that they even (predictably) disavow the label Noise. Hardly the most radical gesture, and a negative definition of art which appears to confine it to the realm of semantic meaning: non-Noise is valuable simply because it disrupts our semantic categories. How is this non-aesthetic semantics experienced? At best it can only be like the twinkling of the undecideable in Derrida. In short, art seems condemned to become a mere play of signification.
    Continuing with further negative definitions of Noise (it is not knee-jerk academic reflexivity/ it is punk beyond punk/it has an affinity with rock’s knowing unselfconsciousness) the second section quietly concludes with the mention that each of the two groups ‘implicate delirious lucidity within libidinal derangement: intellect and libido simultaneously tweaked.’ It’s as if Brassier realises that a purely intellectual role for art will not account for arts specificity, and is thus forced back into using folk-psychological theories of sensation: the tweaking of the ‘libido’. Rather that than contaminate his philosophy with a more abstract but more Deleuzian notion of affectivity. But what else is the simultaneous tweaking of the intellect and the libido, if not the experience of joyful passions through the intuition of common notions?
    The third section sketches out the following criteria for a non-aesthetics, each of which, arguably, conform to a typically Romantic, if not classical conception of art. i) it is always excessive ii) it is against interpretation iii) it is a work of constant experimentation iv) it produces an infinite movement of form. Again, what is interesting about the descriptions is the lengths to which he will go to avoid using inherited terminology. With Noise, there ‘is always too much rather than too little to hear at once; an excess which invites repeated listens.’ What is this always excessive complement to the formal arrangement of music, if not its affective dimension? That element of sound which the senses register but which our consciousness is unable to process into either thought or feeling. Isn’t this also why the abstract lyrical component of the music always refuses interpretation, because the semantic content ‘cannot be separated from the sound in which it is nested’? The term ‘PRE aesthetics’ is intended to describe the way in which form should never become fixed in a non-aesthetic approach to art, and constant experimentation ensures there is no final totalised product; what we have is the infinite movement of form, or, ‘the moving matter of a continuous variation’. (Deleuze and Guattari, appropriated from A.W. Schlegel) Here we are getting closer to the idea of art as a living form.
    By section four non-aesthetics has become intolerable. Brassier identifies the horrendous performative aspects of his non-Noise artists by examining their concerts, accurately described as ‘psycho-physical tests and training’. I won’t go into grim detail about what the audience is expected to undergo, but Brassier justifies the simultaneously shocking and ridiculous aspects of the concerts as ‘experiments in controlled absurdity, poised at the tipping point between comedic entertainment and intolerable provocation.’ Two things strike me about this section: firstly, whilst it contains an admission that artworks have a precise physiological dimension, it doesn’t contain a consistent set of terms to account for this physiological aspect (such as a theory of drives, or a theory of affects); and instead, merely resorts to a hyperbolic use of adjectives to describe sensation. Here at least Brassier is comfortable with his qualia. Nor does it consider the political consequences of this physiological dimension of art (such as the way that Ranciere, following Schiller, will envisage a revolutionary potential in the ‘new partitions of the sensible’ which the artwork imposes). Secondly, the dark precursor to this notion of performance as a ‘psycho-physical test and training’ must surely be Antonin Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’; why is there no mention of his work? In fact, the parallels between Artaud’s vision of a total art and Brassier’s conception of non-aesthetics will extend far beyond the necessary cruelty of performance. Both Artaud and Brassier share an undeniable Gnostic sensibility, a sensibility which is ‘organised around the idea of knowing-gnosis-rather than around faith.’ In the preface to Artaud’s Selected Works, Susan Sontag delineates the Gnostic trajectory in Artaud’s writing. Explaining how the ‘leading energies of Gnosticism come from metaphysical anxiety and acute psychological distress-the sense of being abandoned, of being an alien, of being possessed by demonic powers which prey on the human spirit in a cosmos vacated by the divine’, she goes on to describe the psychological and physical torments the adept must undergo in the ‘Gnostic passage through the stages of transcendence…a move from the conventionally intelligible to what is conventionally unintelligible’, until finally one reaches the total work of art:
    ‘And Artaud’s hope for art is also Gnostic, like his hope for the body. The vision of a total art has the same form as the vision of the redemption of the body. “The body is the body/it is alone/it has no need of organs,”…Art will be redemptive when, like the redeemed body, it transcends itself-when it has no organs (genres).’ (Sontag)
    The brief final section, which concludes with an invocation of a ‘noise which is not ‘noise’, the noise of the sui generis’ only further underlines the similarities between Brassier’s singular conception of a non-aesthetics, and, I would contend, the idea of an artwork as an abstract machine, which is non-reducible to the artist; but is instead the living form of an orphan artwork. Of course, this brutal reading of ‘Genre is Obsolete’ can be easily discounted: this essay is peripheral to Brassier’s philosophy, I am criticising it for what it is not, and it was never intended to be a manifesto for a non-aesthetics. But I think I’ve managed to identify the key problem inherent in any potential non-aesthetic theory of artworks: it will need to found a consistent set of terms to account for the role of sensation, and not just an insincere ‘rhetoric of exasperation.’ My next reading will involve an examination of the role of the Freudian death drive- what was always a speculative biological impulse- in the second and seventh chapters of Nihil Unbound.
  14. Logical Regression (Response): Willhelm – I’m going to have to clean up this blog… this may even require another move, to a more customisable blog format. But for the moment we’ll make do…
    Your comments are interesting, and worthy of the subject. Also, I can ascertain you are a Middlesex Student, but perhaps I’m wrong ! I agree with you with regard to your feeling that some kind of inscription of aesthetics is necessary within, or against, Brassier’s system, for reasons both ethical and, put simply, aesthetic. However, I do believe a kind of non-aesthetics might be precisely the way forward, though not the one suggested by you via your reading of Brassier’s text on ‘non-Noise’. I think for one that there is something almost comical about the extremes that Noise/Noise Theory fanatics go to to distance Noise from the conventions of music, and now to distance non-Noise from Noise. It does rather point to the fact that there is nothing in modern society that can circumvent being commodified (see Nick Smith on Noise and Adornian theory: http://clogic.eserver.org/4-2/smith.html). Ever more desperate attempts to avoid ‘labelling’ devise ever more predictable labels (as in ‘non-Noise’). What art and music might better do is extricate themselves from the world of capital and of science altogether: in becoming beyond categorisation art may have to shed precisely what it is, the ‘art-object’ itself. I advocate that art migrates into the pure ‘thought-of-art’ (as the thought of the possibility of pure freedom). On the back of Duchamp’s declaration that anything can be art, and Beuys’ that ‘We are all artists’, such a course of action allows that we can declare ourselves as art (as free) on our own say so, and it need not involve a dismissal of the claims of neuroscience, as art is, in any case, an illusory projection of freedom (projected and experienced as very real) and not a faith-oriented religious belief. What I am arguing is that if science eradicates the ‘spirit’ in man, that man reclaims ‘spirit’ (or ‘meaning’ in life) as an ‘artistic readymade’. With regard to your close reading of the Freudian death-drive, I will read the same chapters and await your response. I will say firstly that what I ascertain from reading Nihil Unbound is that Brassier’s interpretation of the Death Drive is very biased indeed – where he reads life as only barely inscribed under the aegis of death, I would argue that Freud can actually be read as demonstrating that life is triumphant in its living in death’s shadow. Again, please invite others to join in.

1 Comment

Filed under Adorno, Aesthetics, Art, Freud, Laruelle, Nietzsche, Nihil Unbound, Ray Brassier, Speculative Realism

One response to “Dialogical Response to Nihil Unbound

  1. There is room in Brassier's current trajectory of thought for art. He rightfully denies the Romanticism of poesis, but does so for its reliance on meaning. Art in general remains a worthy category that he merely has not had much to say about yet. Brassier's nihilism is indeed open to truth, if a weak notion of it: the "unphenomenologisable" of math and physics, even a space for politics. He does have an interest in art and, in addition to science and theory, posits are as an important field in the substantial (as opposed to stylistic) realm of philosophy. Deleuze or Badiou probably have the most compatible ideas here so far, with affectivity and sensory indistinction respectively, but we can only wait to see if and how the Speculative Realists deal with this subject. Let us not forget that art was, in the past, held closer to science than to the humanities. It was the hermeneutic/Romantic/deconstructionist positioning of art in the sublime that really ripped it from its roots in truth and its relation to science and mathematics. Although I am very wary of Badiou's idealism and humanism, the only way to save art from its re-inscription into the meaningless of "meaning" is to postulate its potential for truth on a similar level of science or mathematics.

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