Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Friday, August 31, 2012

Ray Brassier interviewed at After Nature

There is a recent interview with Ray Brassier over at the After Nature blog, run by Leon Niemoczynski. It's not easy for me to name, off the top of my head, two philosophers who I would expect to get along less. Niemoczynski is a a Process philosopher, heavily influenced by Whitehead and Peirce, Hartshorne and Buchler; an advocate of Robert Corrington's Ecstatic Naturalism, who doesn't hesitate to speak in panentheistic terms of God and nature. By contrast, Brassier is openly hostile to such talk, or to any project of "restoring meaning." To him, Nihilism is not to be recoiled from but to be pushed all the way.
[N]ihilism 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.... Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity. (Nihil Unbound p xi)
This is the vision against which I have set my face. Dismissive of the "existential quandary" of nihilism, Brassier is also dismissive of the subject for whom the quandary would arise, and I sometimes feel his curtness about it betrays more than an intellectual stance -- I would almost say, an existential satisfaction. Note those scare quotes around ‘values’ and ‘meanings.’ He is not merely willing to accept and participate in the dismantling of the "manifest image" of our experience, but seems, at least to this reader, to take a certain positive if grim satisfaction in the demolition job.

He's also one of the most formidable of contemporary thinkers. Precisely because he formulates this (to me, wholly uncongenial) philosophy so strongly, he's someone who I knew, as soon as I encountered his thought, that I would need to read and wrestle with. Brassier has a force that you can't dismiss just because he doesn't make you feel all cozy and "at home in the universe." His integrity as a thinker is unimpeachable. For one thing, Brassier has given us some priceless translations of Badiou and Meillassoux, showing a sustained attention for very powerful thinkers not wholly in line with his own projects. He gives sympathetic and critical readings of sources which are surprisingly diverse -- e.g., Daniel Dennett and Francois Laruelle, Wilfred Sellars and Thomas Ligotti -- and he weaves them into a coherent and compelling whole. Above all, he writes clearly and cogently. Nietzsche or Ligotti can make you feel nihilism, but Brassier makes you understand the case for nihilism -- that it is, indeed, a "case," and not just a disposition or a dyspepsia.

I've never met Brassier; he doesn't have me in his cross-hairs when he voices his disdain for "re-enchantment." It is not, as they say, personal -- and indeed, much of Brassier's thinking is about the most impersonal thinking I can imagine. I do correspond with a number of people who have met him, some who see eye-to-eye with him and some who are like me strongly resistant to at least aspects of his thought. All tell me that, beside his rigor of mind, he is also an affable and approachable figure, frank but respectful and able to have a powerfully engaging conversation about disagreements. This is one of the most telling of marks for me of philosophy per se. There is a distinction between making a shibboleth out of "respecting differences," and on the other hand being able to talk to people you recognize to have reasons to maintain things you don't yourself maintain, even things you think are distressingly wrong.

I mention this here because there is not a trace of snideness or disdain in any of Brassier's responses to Niemoczynski, nor of implied rebuff in Niemoczynski's questions. The interview is brief, but reading carefully, one can see the tracings of tangential connections between their two projects. A shared interest in Bergson (albeit for very different reasons, I suspect -- Niemoczynski is I would guess sympathetic to some version of Bergson's vitalism, and Brassier in the interview is overtly critical of it); likewise, perhaps, in Plato, and again in naturalism itself -- doubtless a contested term. The interview whetted my appetite for Brassier's further work, for although I doubt he will be moving in a direction I will find altogether appealing, he's sure to formulate powerful and telling arguments. The way Niemoczynski posed the inquiries also makes me think again that there are always secret connections that can be brought to light between very disparate and apparently antagonistic projects.

There is some interesting commentary, especially on Brassier's mention of his work on Sellars, at Dark Chemistry.


  1. Isn't an "enlightened" nihilist merely the guy who comes into the dance, turns off the music, turns up the lights and tells everyone to go home?

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