Freedom’s Fairytale? Pt. 3 Narratology, the Ancestral and the Real


Several points in the post are indebted to discussions here and here.

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.


12 Responses to “Freedom’s Fairytale? Pt. 3 Narratology, the Ancestral and the Real”

  1. Thanks for the link. Having spent a lot of time with this argument and these concepts, there are two things I’ve never yet been able to figure out: Why, specifically, is this a materialism? In Zizek’s and Badiou’s formulations, at least, I have a very difficult time seeing why the logic of the not-all is specifically materialistic. Second, why are Goedel’s theorems as deployed here metaphysical/ontological rather than epistemological? That is, why is this a limitation on being itself rather than a subject relating to being? I can somewhat see why this might be the case in Badiou given his arguments about the mathematical structure of being qua being (though I think this analysis is problematic for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere). It’s more difficult for me to see in the case of Zizek who does not strike me as having as well developed or argued an ontology (though I haven’t yet read Johnston’s latest). I’m not looking for an argument here, but genuinely scratch my head over these questions.

  2. Of course, in certain respects Zizek fares better with the second question due to his Hegelianism. His Hegelianism allows him to “indiscern” the difference between ontology and epistemology due to the dialectical relation between subject and object or the identity of identity and difference. On the other hand, this opens a whole can of worms with Hegel’s idealism.

  3. 3 naughtthought

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the problem of being and epistemology – especially in Brassier/Meillassoux. I think both theories SR and TM are claiming materialism because they start from a material ground they are, in the end, more material then phenomenlogy which has experience as the consistency retaining feature of existence.

    I myself found Meillassoux’s use of incompleteness to void the laws of cause and effect a bit too quick and easy (at least as they are portrayed by Brassier). The only explanation I can see is that it is not an epistemological link because thought arrives from the object and is already tuned to it – thought is not separate from being in grasping objects from a distance (as in phenomenology or empiricism) but the object (coming from the real) allows thinking.

    As for the not-all as materialist – I would say that entropy is the most telling aspect of that fact that not only is nature incomplete because it can’t be an all containing frame for discovery (on the epistemological level) and because ‘things fall apart.’

    I think the trouble lies also in the fact that Brassier’s use of the Real at the end of Nihil Unbound is spoken of as the Real Real but, in Zizek’s terms is merely the imaginary real – the trace of the sublime/horror/trauma. Brassier dismisses the Lacanian Real as impossible and while the real is impossible as such its interactions with the other registers allows for possibility.

    I don’t think this answered your questions but I think they are big ones. Thanks for your comments – it seems we (certain members of the blogosphere) could use a center for materialist debates!

  4. 4 Nick

    I’m not sure if this is what you’re getting at in the second last paragraph, but the problem of transcendence you mentioned on my blog seems to me to be the irreconcilable difference between Brassier and Zizek’s projects. To put it in a (perhaps overly) simple way, I see Brassier attempting (through Laruelle) to speak from the position of the object itself, and as such the subject and consciousness becomes transcendent. (I see Deleuze doing a similar thing with Guattari.) Whereas for Zizek, he speaks from within consciousness, with the world-in-itself being the transcendent problem.

    So if that’s the case, then I’m still not entirely sure how Zizek manages to break out of the circle of consciousness. There’s the Hegelian answer which Sinthome cites above, but that doesn’t escape from correlationism at all. Similarly, with the other footnote Brassier has on Zizek – “it is difficult to square Zizek’s putative ‘materialism’ with his assertion that reality itself is structured around the traumatic kernel of subjectivity.” (245n7)

    So I don’t know – does Zizek really get to a realist ontology? Or is it still one necessarily correlated to thought? I’m not sure myself.

  5. 5 Nick

    (To be more specific, the second paragraph should replace ‘consciousness’ with ‘subjectivity’ or some word that doesn’t necessarily limit the subject to conscious thought.)

  6. 6 naughtthought

    I’ve been thinking more and more about that problem and it seems that Zizek/Johnston are in the end idealist and not materialist. However there is definitely, for transcendental materialism, a sense of the material which seems most like dark matter – as mostly empty with bits of emergence.

    I think the issue with Brassier’s attempt to think the object is that whereas TM wishes to ‘narrate’ the emergence of humanity it seems that Brassier sets a limit with the object and that he focuses more on ends and beginnings. I think Zizek’s work doesn’t appear as correlationist because psychoanalysis doesn’t privilege experience as such over being but the structure of the subject as leaking from the material.

    I think both Zizek and Brassier challenge the easy distinction between ideal and real but I don’t think that Zizek is quite ready to grasp matter instead of material.

    As far as Brassier – I’m not exactly sure how the brain counts as an object in the SR terms he sets out.

  7. 7 Nick

    I don’t think Zizek privileges experience per se, but what would materialism look like without subjectivity for him? If subjectivity is the gap within being, would the absence of subjectivity entail the (mythical?) fullness of being? Or is being always not-All, while only at a certain point subjectivity proper arises? As though the potential for subjectivity had to be a constitutive aspect of being, even during the absence of any subject. (That would be my own take on it, I believe.) Or, third, is Zizek ultimately a Hegelian idealist that just makes being and subjectivity absolutely correlated? Perhaps I just need to re-read some Zizek with these questions in mind, but I’m curious as to whether you have any thoughts on it.

  8. 8 naughtthought

    I think the second point is closest to my own thoughts and I definately see the issue, that you mentioned on your blog, of Zizek reading Schelling’s materialism as having a desire to birth the subject. I think the pulsation of the real, the idea that something can come from nothing (a la quantum physics) is the closest idea to explaining the impossible genesis of subjectivity.

    I think that this genesis, as articulated by Johnston is ideal (which is highly problematic) because the ideal rearticulates the real. I think this is one of the biggest difference of SR from TM – for TM the Real is far more opaque and cannot be re-thought in terms of it affecting my being (Nihil Unbound p. 137). But, at the same time, I think Brassier might limit the power of thought (definately not in general) but on being in terms of the brain and plasticity and the power of experience. The issue, which I think I said above, is how the brain is seen as an object in the terms of SR.

    Also, may I ask, are you a student or…? It just seems like I’ve been speaking to an only partially articulated void…

  9. 9 Nick

    Ya, I think working through some Laruelle would help answer your questions, since that’s where Brassier gets most of his ideas concerning the relation between objects and thought. I take it you know that Brassier’s dissertation on Laruelle is online? Here’s a link, if you didn’t:

    Click to access ALIENTHEORY.pdf

    Ya, I’m a student. I did an MA in Political Science, and right now I’m in the midst of a year off before I begin a PhD. A vast majority of my background in continental philosophy is self-taught, but I obviously find it really interesting. You’re a student too, I take it?

  10. 10 naughtthought

    I’ve been re-reading the Laurelle chapter in Nihil Unbound but without much luck in terms of understanding the specifics of unilateral duality. I have seen the thesis but haven’t attempted to work through it yet…

    I’m a first year masters student in media philosophy (whatever that means) and most of my theory knowledge is self taught aside from the little bits I got in literature classes.

  1. 1 Freedom’s Fairytale? Pt. 3 Narratology, the Ancestral and the Real (via Naught Thought) « Minimal ve Maksimal Yazılar
  2. 2 Freedom’s Fairytale? Pt. 3 Narratology, the Ancestral and the Real (via Naught Thought) « Minimal ve Maksimal Yazılar

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