Freedom’s Fairytale? Pt. 3 Narratology, the Ancestral and the Real
Derrida’s notion of language play and the purported death of the transcendental signifier seems to have anchored narratology, as it is understood in cultural studies and many veins of literary studies, in the swamp of post-structuralism. Furthermore, the phenomenological and post-Kantian articulation of experience as existence can, as Ray Brassier indirectly argues, can be construed as an ongoing attempt to narrativize being. In the beginning of Nihil Unbound, Brassier works through Paul Churchland’s Eliminative Materialism pointing out that while attempting to stream line human subjectivity (by erasing folk psychology – the understanding of human interiority through exterior observation) Churchland runs into a problem when he has to relate neurochemically caused consciousness to the outside world. The problem is that since all we are is a neurochemical network that represents the world – something outside that network must allow for that network (since the network, as any set, cannot contain itself).
Whereas thinkers such as Churchland envision a world where philosophy is gradually subsumed by developments in science, the problem of science’s limit, immediately raises the question of the place of reason, observation and transcendence in scientific naturalism. Brassier engages Quentin Meillassoux’s concept of the arche-fossil – the idea that there is a time prior to time – that events which occurred prior to the possibility of experience (by way of consciousness) such as the big bang, seriously challenge the phenomenological purchase on reality. While Brassier seems to support a theory of objects in themselves, that is that certain things pre-exist our experience, he is critical of Meillassoux’s fossil because it maintains the distinction between anthropocentric time and cosmological time thereby allowing phenomenolgists to disregard pre-experiential time as not existing properly until it was grasped by thought thereby placing Meillassoux’s ancestral realm as a reservoir ‘waiting’ to be intuited. The common thread here is that the mythical view of man, the view that any experience prior to the emergence of humanity only has value as it is researched or dug up through our experience, allows for a narrative which is contingent only to serve the centrality of human experience. It is for this reason that correlationist philosophy, philosophy that pays particular heed to Heidegger, is damaging to philosophy proper.
Brassier’s argument about the need for philosophy proper, in many ways, mirrors Copjec’s discussion of the Real as the self effacing quality that must exist in order to maintain consistency of any discursive construction. Copjec uses Deleuze’s discussion of Foucualt’s use of power – for power to be the force that it is in history Deleuze points out that it must trip over itself or else it risks becoming totalizing in such a way that it would be undifferentiated from existence itself. Meillassoux’s necessity of contingency falls in place here as well – the universe is necessary contingent and, this contingency refers to the law of contingency as well thereby showing not that all is flux but that flux itself is in flux. Here we can look back at Churchland’s problem of relating the network to the world and how it is supposedly solved by Speculative Realism:
Brassier argues that thought and being must be integrated without recourse to transcendentalism or phenomenology by way of Meillassoux and he accomplishes this by working through the thought of Francois Laurelle’s non-philosophy. Brassier adapts Laurelle’s definition of the Real as the zero point of being against defining it as the impossible (which he attributes to Lacan) and stating that it is what Badiou attempted to construct, via subtractive ontology as ‘being-nothing.’ While Brassier’s critique of Badiou seems rather apt, his quick dismissal of Lacan appears problematic. Copjec’s, as well as other Lacanians’, reading of the real is that it is what guarantees consistency via a self sabotaging which dismisses the myth of totality a la Godel and Russel. Here is where Transcendental Materialism and Speculative Realism come to a head – the the discussion of the narrative.
In a footnote Brassier writes:
“In Zizek’s Hegelianism, the subject achieves its autonomy by retroactively positing/reintegrating its own contingent material determinants: freedom is the subjective necessity of objective contingency. But by dissolving the idea of a necessary connection between cause and effect, Meillassoux’s absolutization of contingency not only destroys materialist ‘determinism’ understood as the exceptionless continuity of the casual nexus, but also the idealist conception of subjective ‘freedom’ understood in terms of the second-order reflexive causality described by Zizek. The subject cannot ‘choose’ or determine its own objective determination when the contingency of all determination implies the equal arbitrariness of every choice, effectively erasing the distinction between forced and unforced choice. Thus it becomes impossible to distinguish between objective compulsion and subjective reflexion, phenomenal heteronomy and noumenal autonomy. The principle of factuality collapses the distinction between first and second order levels of determination, thereby undermining any attempt to distinguish between objective heteronomy and subjective autonomy” (Nihil Unbound, p. 247 n15).
Speculative realism. as it is articulated by Ray Brassier, suggests that because the determinism is voided by the hyper chaos of existence, because every situation is incomplete (a la Russel/Godel) there can be no definite chain of events that allows us to reflect on, to retroactively assert our freedom as Zizek argues. Brassier use of Meillassoux’s necessity of contingency in relation to the laws of nature to damage Zizek’s claims about retroactive freedom due to the fact that freedom is automatic and not reflexive due to the place of the object in Brassier’s thinking. Because, for Brassier, the object must be thought through, and thereby precedes thought, and because these objects make up a reality that is not all due to the fact that the laws of nature are themselves contingent (here Adrian Johnston’s reading of Zizek’s reading of Schelling appears useful).
While Brassier’s final reflections on the death drive in Nihil Unbound suggest a subjectivity that essentially ‘clears the field’ by way of its ‘being-nothing’ this sense of freedom seems indebted to the object (of the brain in this case?) as a kind of filter for our particular individuation – our own worthless repetitious response to the knowledge of extinction. Brassier’s discussion of freedom, as a kind of agency, appears to be missing from the text, and his strongest rejection of Zizek’s assertion would most likely lie in keeping being and thought separate without relying on transcendentalism. The question becomes: Is Brassier’s use of Laurelle’s Unilateral Dualism (a twoness in the void where one side runs amok, becomes an excess of the other) that different from Johnston’s articulation of Transcendental Materialism – where consciousness runs away from gray matter?
For Brassier, transcendence is only operative on the side of the object which is given (without relation, without givenness) by the real whereas Transcendental Material operates in an almost backwards fashion – transcendence is operative via giveness which the object gives from the real. Put in terms of consciousness: for Brassier the real gives us the brain which allows thinking but through a disjunction whereas for Johnston/Zizek, thought escapes the limits of the brain and goes to work on it.
Both Brassier and Zizek are attempting to write a narrative of humanity that is meaningless and yet useful, at least, until the stars go down and the heat death (or perhaps the big rip) of the universe begins. One has to wonder how irksome Brassier would find the extent which the human race would go to, pointlessly, exist beyond the death of the universe. The distinct possibility that, in the cold days of the degenerate era, trillions of years in the future, that humans, then huddled around a white dwarf, the universe’s last light, opened a quantum bubble and hopped into another universe.
Filed under: cognitive science, Copjec, Lacan, psychoanalysis, Speculative Realism, transcendental materialism, Zizek | 12 Comments
Tags: Brassier, cognitive science, Meillassoux, Speculative Realism, transcendental materialism, Zizek