There was some debate, a little back and forth really, on Twitter about Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound and whether extinction constitutes a telos or terminus, or not. This was specifically raised in the context of whether or not we can think extinction as a form of messianism. First, before approaching the question of whether or not extinction is teleological, I want to clarify some terminology in relation to messianisms.
Eschatology, Messianisms, The Messianic
Derrida makes a distinction in his work between messianisms and “the Messianic.” The latter is the very structure of anticipation, a philosophy of anticipation (which marks deconstruction) as opposed to the various messianisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) which anticipate something specific. There is a specificity because these messianisms are built on textual structures, revealed religions, prophecies, etc.
Deconstruction is Messianic rather than a specific messianism because it anticipates the impossible, with no guarantee that it will come or occur. This can be seen for example in his philosophy of time in the distinction between the future (as predictable and expected: tomorrow, next year, etc.) versus l’avenir (that which is to come, the unpredictable and the unexpected). Messianisms would fall under the former, while deconstruction would be the latter (the coming of the Other, the undeconstructable, the real future) because they are eschatological. This means that they have predicted the end, the end of time, the end of history, etc, etc. They are teleological in this sense, we are moving towards these known ends, whereas deconstruction would be transcendental (I don’t know if Derrida would say this, but I don’t think it’s all that controversial) in that rather than being concerned with the end as such, it is concerned with limits.
Freud’s Myth and the Limits of Life and Death
Now, I will admit right away that I’m not necessarily confident in my reading of Brassier, and have focused primarily on the final part (Part III) of the book since it has more to do with my interests (let’s be honest, I skimmed Part II, focusing my reading on the Meillassoux chapter and Part III). That being said, I still think the way to understand extinction for Brassier is not in terms of ends, but limits.
What is the problem for correlationism with thinking extinction? What is extinction? It is not, first of all, the destruction of Being. Correlationism can deal with the destruction of Being because this is also the destruction of Thought as such. The problem is thinking the two apart from each other, for Meillassoux this is presented in the idea that there was a time prior to Thought, a time when there was Being with no Thought attached to it (hence why the correlationist must make the odd claim that the past prior to Thought is actually somehow For-Thought).
For Brassier, the other end of this is also true; not only can correlationism not think a time before Thought, but it cannot think a time after Thought either, that is, a world without us. The fact that he draws on Badiou here is important, with the connection between thinking and being (their Parmenidean unity) thought in terms of the One, which precisely “is not,” which is where Brassier gets the term “being-nothing” as the condition which allows for existence in the first place. Thought emerges ex nihilo along with Being as multiplicity. Nothing is the cause of Being. Nothing is the condition for Thought.
Extinction surrounds life and conditions it. In his use of Freud’s myth of the first organisms, we see that death is the source and end of life, that which allowed the first forms of life (the birth of life is death, the death of the outer wall of the living to allow it to live, to reproduce, and to die). Death is the limit to life, with the death drive as the mark, the scar of the birth of death, of this original inorganic state of being.
Extinction cannot be a messianism then, because it is entirely inconceivable, while it also cannot be the Messianic, because not only is it possible, it is predictable. Extinction is not eschatological because it is not just the end, but the beginning as well (while also always being alongside us). It can only be described as transcendental in that only through extinction is there the condition of the possibility of life itself or perhaps more importantly, of Thought itself. It is only because everything is dead already that we can think at all.