March 6th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Ray Brassier: Enlightened Tact and Disrepect; or, the Academy of Idiots goes Live

"I am a nihilist because I still believe in truth..."
     - Ray Brassier

The latest Ray Brassier Interview. In this interview he offers us an encapsulated view of his nihilism, which is based upon the "crisis of meaning" he sees as a part of our historical era. He puts this crisis within an epistemological naturalist framework and narrative of transitioning  stages from a religious  (poly- to monotheism) view whose overarching formation is guided by a worldview based upon a "natural order, and that order is comprehensible to human beings in its broad outline, if not in every single one of its details." He also castigates and maligns all those armchair metaphysicians who wander astray in his opinion after the secrets of nature without the support of science. In another academic appeal he attacks the use of blogging as erroneous and that it has only produced so far an "orgy of stupidity." Strong words from a dogmatist of science and epistemological naturalism that finds itself boxed into a corner. In his opinion philosophical bloggers have all become monkey philosophers deluded by the illusions of metaphysics, chasing after the fantasy of a speculative realism that is itself a pipe-dream in the mind of an Orangutan.  

In the old worldview he sees a naturalist perspective in which God is the "ultimate source and guarantor of this meaningful order", one in which humans are the central players in a cosmic drama within which they struggle from Genesis to Apocalypse between an ethical agon of good and evil forces. Against this backdrop is the emergence of natural science and mathematics during the 16th Century. One might call this the Age of Unraveling, when the monotheistic worldview began to come apart at the seams, each thread unraveling until we reach the Age of Nihilism in which life is seen as without purpose and meaning. Yet, for Brassier this is freedom from the long dominion of a false system, and the opening toward a new worldview in which " intelligibility has become detached from meaning" thereby providing us with the postulate that knowledge no longer needs the support of a posited God to support meaning. 

Brassier sees this as a "decisive step forward in the slow process through which human rationality has gradually abandoned mythology, which is basically the interpretation of reality in narrative terms." In this next stage a naturalist narrative takes over as the engine and driver of our narratologies with science and philosophy as supporting methods that interact and formulate the underlying threads of this strange realism that is shaping us. Instead of an existential view that still supported humanity as the central player in this ongoing creation of meaning, the newest perspective sees humanity as just one more object for the mill of science to work on. The newest project explains humanity and consciousness in particular not as meaning creation system, but as part of "products of purposeless but perfectly intelligible processes, which are at once neurobiological and sociohistorical."

Yet, even our aspiration for a narratological perspective that would encompass this new naturalist worldview is but an "epistemically derivative ‘useful fiction’." He tells us that the elimination of metaphysical explanations and the implication of a narrative of "cognitive progress" can be backed up by the philosopher Robert Brandom’s reconstructive reading of Hegel, which he states "frees the normative ideal of explanatory progress from its metaphysical, and ultimately mythological, inflation into the universal history of Spirit." Against the nihilism Nietzshe's as if fictions that are life-enhancing Brassier considers himself of another type in that he refuses "this Nietzschean solution and continue to believe in the difference between truth and falsity, reality and appearance. In other words, I am a nihilist precisely because I still believe in truth, unlike those whose triumph over nihilism is won at the cost of sacrificing truth. I think that it is possible to understand the meaninglessness of existence, and that this capacity to understand meaning as a regional or bounded phenomenon marks a fundamental progress in cognition."

The other aspect of Brassier's stance is in regards to the continuing philosophical fascination with monotheism that he sees in such philosophers as Quentin Meillassoux whose latest book L'inexistence postulates an inexistent 'God-to-come'. He says that philosophers should instead instigate a moratorium and declare any further 'God talk' to the dustbin of history. He goes on to say that religion "obviously satisfies deep-seated human needs, but it has been a cognitive catastrophe that has continually impeded epistemic progress," and that human knowledge has "progresses in spite of religion, never because of it."

As an aside the interviewer asks Brassier about his musical proclivities, and Brassier offers us a site where he and Mattin, Jean-Luc Guionnet, and Seijiro Murayama have collaborated on certain texts: 'Idioms and Idiots' and 'Metal Machine Theory' (@

In an open attack on philosophical blogging Brassier shows his academic hand as an enforcer of the status quo and the return of the Academy as watchdog, saying, in regards to both SR and philosophical blogging in general:

"The ‘speculative realist movement’ exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sympathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy. I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students. I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity."

Anti-democratic and elitist is what I call this perspective and its cynical regard of the community of individuals that are shaping the future of both communication and technology on the internet. What is strange is that Brassier is so pointed in his attack toward what he sees as central: actor-network theory, the spices being secondary. After some research I wondered just where he focused his attention, and I discovered the historical trail. A post on LarvalSubjects, A Brief Actor-Network-Theory History of Speculative Realism that outlines the roots of this movement in detail. What is interesting in this essay by Levi R. Bryant is what he says about the internet itself:

"I am not making the absurd claim that somehow SR has overturned the predominant ideological and power structures of Continental philosophy as practiced in the English speaking world. Clearly it remains a small and marginal movement. The claim I’m making is that that movement would not have been able to intensify at all had it not been for a medium like the internet. All of this raises questions of how thought comes to be structured differently as a result of media like the internet that are a strange combination of oral culture and written culture and where the book and article as a polished thought holds sway; but also questions of how normativity functions in this space where new collectives are formed, all sorts of riddles about identity emerge, and where there are not established norms to govern interactions."

Levi's remarks on the need for a normative set of principles or guidelines to govern interactions is something that will arise out of the democratic process itself in my own opinion. But to want to close it off from a viable platform of debate for philosophical discourse in the way Brassier proposes is a little premature and reactionary as in this statement: "I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students."
Freedom is the very essence of the web. Blogging has become for better or worse the new medium of choice for many in our day and age, and I for one welcome it as both a democratic realm and a network medium that allows for interactions between philosophers in a global world. Rather than being closed off in a lock-and-key environment such as the academy of experts and scientist communitarians that Brassier avows in his discourse I would rather take my chances in this open and uncontrolled world of networking and comaraderie.

Yet, as we all know it is the internet as a social medium that has forced Ray Brassier to become defensive in his posturing and to fight as a rearguard reactionary against the very medium that we have all seen used effectively in a network-theory capacity in the recent events of the Middle-East. Maybe this is not a platform for as he says "serious philosophical debate", but then what platform does he suggest? Shall philosphy stay within the Academy? Shall it be guided by the experts and gurus of the community of academics with all their prestiguous degrees and soverign power? And what of the history of those non-academic philosophers who always struggled against just this very sort of closed world? Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bataille... and, even that favorite of Brassier himself, Nick Land? As Land tells us in The Thirst for Annihilation: "Pessimism, or the philosophy of desire, has a marked allergy to academic encompassment. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud all wrote the vast bulk of their works from a space inaccessible to the sweaty clutches of state pedagogy, as, of course, does Bataille." More pointedly Land states specifically on Schopenhauer's disenchantment with academia and the control of philsophers during the 19th Century by State influence:

"By the end of this text Schopenhauer has argued that the university is inextricably compromised by the interests of the state, that this necessarily involves it in the perpetuation of the monotheistic dogmas that serve such interests, and that the consequent subservience to vulgar superstition completely devastates it; degrading it to a grotesquely hypocritical sophistry, fuelled by a petty careerism spiced by an envious hatred of intellectual independence, and articulated in a wretchedly obscure and distorted jargon that allows its proponents both to squirm away from the surveillance of the priests, and to hypnotize a gullibly adoring public. (7)" 

What's at the heart of this is something Land hits a homerun on:

"What is at stake in both cases is not argument, however rancorous, but the relation of mutual revulsion between the academy and a small defiant fragment of its outside. Neither recognizes the legitimacy of the other’s discourse; for the university considers its other to be incompetent, whilst the part of this other—admittedly a very small part—that has seized and learnt to manipulate the weaponry of philosophical strife, considers the voice of the university to be irremediably tainted by servility. (7)"

One can see in Brassier's revulsion of the coterie of affiliated philosophers and their online blogging as an affront to the authority and prestige of the Academy as an institution that wants to solidify its social and political power over potential graduate students. Brassier like many academic brokers wants to contain this energy, this desire, and rechannel it and institutionalize it back into the formidable world of academic tradesmanship that has been prevalent since the Enlightenment. And let it be known that this is the issue: Ray Brassier champions the Enlightenment and is progressive heritage, even if under the guise of a bounded nihilism turned epistemic naturalist. Some day I will explicate in details my own views on this philosophical heritage and how it seeks its own power over the hearts and minds of those "impressionable" young philosphers.

On another note Alex Reid's digital digs: on the value of academic blogging also enters into this informal atmosphere showing both the pros and cons of academic blogging in an intelligent and helpful essay. His perspective is both refreshing and one that is appropriate and on mark in regards to blogging in general.

Brassier's attack on what he terms "armchair metaphysics" is another dismissive attack on Speculative Realism and its phenomenological tendencies within Object-Oriented and Immanence Process based philosophies stemming from some of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth-century: Martin Heidegger (and Edmund Husserl), and Alfred North Whitehead. Instead of argument we get this: "The idea of a purely a priori, armchair metaphysics, presuming to legislate about the structure of reality while blithely ignoring the findings of our best sciences, strikes me as indefensible." Yet, what if that very science was itself indefensible in some of its methods? What if the naturalist epistemological perspective and practices of those philosophers and scientists that Brassier so highly regards were themselves retrograde and uninspiring, if not downright wrong about their so to speak findings? He points to Peter Wolfendale's Essay on Transcendental Realism (Warning: pdf) as providing "the most perspicuous account of the relation between metaphysics and the natural sciences". This is neither the place, nor do I have time to lay out arguments pro/con on epistemic naturalism. It's just too easy to dismiss someone you do not agree with, and this is the point I'm trying to convey: that Brassier seems not only dismissive of certain philosophies but to be taking it to a personal level in many of his interviews and essays of late. Not sure what the problem is there, but it is not a good sign from a mind that otherwise is so intelligent and full of good ideas.  

And, in an offhand remark against such terms as 'weird' being used in debates of 'common-sense' and 'ordinary language' philosophy he tells us it's use is both debilitating for philosophy and counter-intuitive if not "vacuous as it is idiotic." Against idealists of any stripe he tells us that whereas "empirical commonsense leads to the science whose counter-intuitive results challenge the limits of human imagination, idealist disdain for commonsense often ends up ratifying a more rarefied, more insidious orthodoxy in which ‘failures of imagination are mistaken for insights into necessity’ (Dennett)."

Brassier himself is promoting a one world view based upon epistemic naturalism and its control of the sciences. His closure of philosophy as a mode of open ended discussion and debate on the internet, and his elitist and scientific judgements lack any form of openness and democratic appeal to the community at large. His castigation of philosophers that oppose his views as 'idiots' is both pernicious and lacks the tact of an ethically enlightened mind.

 As Michael Strangelove in his profound meditation on Capitalist strategies, The Empire of Mind: Digital Piracy and the Anti-Capitalist Movement once said:

"It is quite possible that as unconstrained expression becomes a generalized expectation, individuals will be less willing over time to submit to the institutional containment of human creativity. ... Capitalism and its empire of mind constitute a system that substantially determines thought and action, but it is neither omnipotent nor eternal. In the Internet Age, resistance is not futile." (231)


Last night I was a little OTT in my appraisal of Ray Brassier, and feel that I, too, got a little personal in my attack on his perspective, so have retracted earlier remarks that impinged on political rhetoric of a nature I admit was a strong in reaction to his interview. Yet, I feel strongly that his stance needs some amending too. One can critique one's enemies without dragging it down into the gutter as he does with language like "orgy of stupidity". It's this type of sophistry that irks me and makes my gander rise up and want to say: Why are you doing this? Why the animus?

Peter Gratton on Philosophy In A Time of Error  points to Eric Schliesser's article on Ray Brassier's immoderation: here and here! As well as the comments by Brad Johnson, Anthony Paul Smith, Adam Kotsko and others at An und fur sich. Another take is from Chris at Being Suffciently: Ray Brassier doesn't Like You.