In an intersection of evolutionary psychology and philosophy I’ve recently been reading a lot of interviews and essays concerning Ray Brassier. Often lumped in with “Speculative Realists” Brassier seems much more inclined to what he calls “Transcendental Materialism” or, as I sometimes see it referred to, “Transcendental Nihilism.” I first found Brassier via a clickhole of articles on Nick Land, a fascinating, terrifying individual. A mix of madman and philosopher that seems to have taken the role of a modern harbinger of apocalypse as a technological antichrist. While I had an “instinct” (for lack of a better word) that Land was wrong (or perhaps “bad”) I couldn’t engage with his work in a way that felt legitimate, eventually I uncovered an interview/talk by Brassier on Land that finally put into words (somewhat) a legitimate criticism of Land that didn’t devolve into unnecessary talk about virtue or idealism: a nihilist critique of Land’s Dark Enlightenment I could get behind. However, reading more of his work I find myself in a similar predicament of Wall and Hard Place of engagement. I respect Brassier much more than Land as a philosopher (Land, though intelligent and prolific and provocative, seems more an eccentric oddity than anything else), but still have significant disagreement with (what I think I may understand of) his philosophy.
Before I continue I will say that I’m fully aware of Brassier’s criticism of Speculative Realism and the blogging culture that has attempted to plaster a multitude of disparate ideas together:
“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.”
[This was originally from an interview with Kronos but I cannot find the original, there is a transcript that may be found at Senselogi© and a discussion of this topic may be found at The Charnel-House.]
So, in order to prevent the wrath of Brassier I will add a disclaimer here (which I often do inadvertently in my work anyway) to say that I do not consider myself a real philosopher. Hopefully I am someone who can understand some ideas of philosophy, and I hope that I can talk about philosophy with some degree of competency. That is, I hope I’m not engaging in the “attempt to pass off opining as argument and to substitute self-aggrandizement for actual philosophical achievement.” (The Charnel-House)
But opinion is as opinion does, and I just can’t seem to stay quiet even when I can’t make a salient point.
The main crux of Brassier’s philosophy as I understand it is the negation of “experience.” Like most nihilists Brassier rejects the idea of inherent “meaning,” by which I mean he rejects the idea of inherent meaning: there is not meaning and we should not strive to project meaning either. Brassier also accepts “truth,” specifically material truth: things exist, they do things to other things, we can catalogue and understand these mechanics. The mechanical truth that hangs over all sapiency is the inevitability of extinction: our own biological and cognitive understanding is grounded in this necessity, therefore, we would do well to throw away any attempt to build “meaning” to deal with our existence. Philosophy should instead speculate about what lies outside of human existence. By dedicating ourselves to the intake of information that is true but not cognitively comprehensible, we change our own cognition. Future humans will have a perception of the world we cannot comprehend because they will be able to deal with the true information that we cannot currently grasp. In the end, humanity is already extinct, we are rational thinking creatures, we will play this out until our end that has already happened.
In principle I agree with the framework of what Brassier has constructed, but I’m not sure I can see the justification for the direction he takes. I’m particularly confused by his cognitive justifications because (to my understanding) being presented information does not allow one to simply develop cognitively to eventually understand it. You cannot feed a computer (even one as advanced as a brain) information it cannot process until it simply starts processing it. Even taking into account large spans of evolutionary time we wont begin to understand information until we develop biologically to do so, and our biology doesn’t have its own will to do so. This brings me to another point: material truth is primarily information, this information does not have understanding or will or drive, it just is. However, information may still interact with other information and develop patterns. Even if these patterns are developed randomly they are still patterns on their own level of processing. So while it is worthwhile to speculate beyond human perception it does not negate that human perception is itself a form of this info-truth. I know I may be skirting very close to correlationism here, but I do not mean to imply that human experience is the grounds of truth, merely that the processes that develop human behavior, thought, emotion, and personality are still part of the process.
“His [Zapffe’s] observation was that human consciousness, an evolved trait of our species, turned our existence into an untenable paradox. According to Zapffe, it’s one thing to experience suffering and then die. But it’s quite another thing to be acutely conscious that this is our life — to be aware that we suffer for no good reason and have only a decline into death, or death by trauma, to look forward to. In order to cope with our consciousness of these realities, then, we must smother our consciousness as best we can by using various tactics. The result is a whole species of beings that have to lie unceasingly to themselves, not always successfully, about what they are and what their lives are really like. If we didn’t so this, the rug would be pulled out from under us and we’d have to face up to the fact that we’re a race that can’t come to terms with its existence. Thus we devise ways to mute, distract, and otherwise obfuscate our consciousness so that it doesn’t overwhelm us with what we’re up against in being alive. This line of thought goes beyond hedonism by exposing us as creatures who bullshit themselves a mile a minute in order to keep going. This bullshit takes various forms. Primary among them are simply ignoring that there is anything problematic about our existence, indulging in pleasurable distractions, creating bogus structures of meaning such as a pleasant afterlife in which the books will be balanced for the suffering we endure in this life, and transmuting our suffering into works of art and philosophy wherein we distance ourselves from what real suffering is and in the process reform it into a source of amusement. Even pessimists who believe they have gone the distance of realizing that we lead lives of meaningless suffering are caught up in this game and must brutalize their consciousness into submission or feel the full force of the reality that all our so-called pleasures are based on lies. The only solution to this conundrum, as Zapffe saw it, would be to bring an end to this festival of falsehoods by ceasing to reproduce.”
However, taking into account Brassier’s observation that extinction is a fact, we may say our deaths have already happened. The movement from distraction to suicidal action is, in effect, redundant. The personal suicide is driven by things being too bad to go on, it is a last-ditch effort. In this sense, things may be bad, but not necessarily bad enough to call for an immediate extinction when one is already inevitable.
Our self-deprecation may itself be consolation in the search for a pattern in our perceivable information. To be pessimistic as dogma is itself redundant, there is only being pessimistic. Striving to extinguish hope is still striving, no matter how much we may protest. We may all be “puppets without strings,” but puppets still dance.
They couldn’t do otherwise, even if they tried.