Transcendental Nihilism?: Teleology and Messianism in Brassier

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.

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14 responses to “Transcendental Nihilism?: Teleology and Messianism in Brassier

  1. Hi Michael, of course i have not read any Brassier, but these days i have heard so many things about him that am getting a bit interested. Although being totally sincere as i am understanding this: lets say that the creation of the universe was consumed in an instant, in a very big but also unique ‘flame’, just like a singular puf! that happens suddenly as a great and very quick combustion. The creation in an instant. The we can say that we all are still trapped in time there, & in first place. But this does not mean that everything is already death, all the contrary. We are not dead yet, thats for sure. We know the fact that we are going to die, that we are somehow actually dying in time. But cannot know that we are already dead. The fact that everything has happened does not lead us to the fact that everything has already died. To my mind this is not meant to be taken as a contradiction, as it is just ‘single’ fact. The greatest one of course.

    but am still learning here, thanks for sharing 🙂

    cheers

  2. My mind is, frankly, fucked from translating all day (there was one sentence that took me about 45 minutes to untangle with the help of a friend), so I’m not sure that this will be anywhere near sufficient a response. Thank you, though, for taking the time to continue a discussion I was interested in two years back and didn’t have many dialogue partners for.

    I don’t have the book ready to hand at the moment (I’m on the couch and it is in my study, basically I’m feeling lazy), but that’s ok because I’m not saying that this strange suggestion I made about messianism and nihilism is something that Brassier would himself agree with or want to say. Nevertheless, I contend, it is there or there is an amphibology between messianism and nihilism, even one as sophisticated and challenging as Brassier’s.

    You’ve located the double-structure, somewhat against Derrida, of all messianic projects. There are the various messianisms of some particular and then there is the transcendental structure of the Messianic that conditions thinking within those messianic structures (I’m not so sure that deconstruction can really get away from the particulars though in so far as they provide the material that populates the transcendental field). You have the same thing in Brassier, in my view, where you have the various nihilisms that focus on the particular ends and the resulting lack of meaning (so, the immature who are troubled by their own death and the more profoundly troubling thought of the impossibility of all possibility in some wimpering death of the universe) and you have the the transcendental structure of the Nihilistic (to keep the phrasing from Derrida) or that which conditions thought.

    Now the question would appear to be can you have one without the other, can you have the the particular without the transcendental field it populates and can you have the transcendental field without its populations? I think this is a false problem and something that Derrida gets wrong and, by extension, something Brassier’s transcendental nihilism gets wrong (wonderful term for that btw). My fading mental faculties are making it difficult for me to relate this, as it should really be done, back to the discussion of correlationism, so this will be a bit too quick and dirty (and Ray’s book really deserves more than this, so apologies if he happens to read). The truth of everything, or the truth of the Real, is in its being nothing. Its final end, its purpose, is in being nothing (in this way it is still within the circle of meaning but collapses it). The conditions for thought (and for being, though each are autonomous to the other) are in being nothing. Just as in theology, particularly those theologies that arise out of messianic religious systems, the truth of both thought and being are only found in their supernatural end (if by this we understand that the supernatural is not “super-nature” but is continues with the natural, not on the strength of the natural, but on the natural’s ultimate rootedness in the divine). I think the transcendental structures of the nothing, witnessed within the systems of nihilism (a bringing to mind the impossibility of thought after the heat death), operate in exactly this manner of a supernatural end.

    Now, in my view, as I said above, this is a false problem because the transcendental field is not “merely given” and because the populations that are distributed upon it change and develop. Limits are not set eternally by any final end in reality. This is an argument that my friend Daniel Barber has made very well in his Duke University doctoral thesis and that I build off in an article that, assuming all things go well, will be published in SubStance with the title “Towards Believing in this World: On the Ecology of the Virtual and the Actual”.

  3. Naxos: “But this does not mean that everything is already death…”

    Actually, for Brassier the fact of eventual extinction means that everything is effectively dead already:

    “But far from lying in wait for us in the far distant future […] the solar catastrophe needs to be grasped as something that has already happened” (NH 223) because we live and think always in relation to this future event. Its mark is on all existents from the start.

    Which might actually help me respond to you Anthony. I think my problem is that while I agree that for Ray our destiny is in “being-nothing,” it is always more than our end, because it is also our origin. This is what I was trying to get at with my talk of messianism and eschatology, both of which are teleological, whereas it seems that Ray wants “being-nothing” to be the scar that engulfs all life in the same way that the death drive marks the impossible birth of death for Freud.

    Put in more Heideggarian terms, “being-nothing” would be our origin and destiny (the thrown-projection of Dasein being from the nothing and towards the nothing), while also always existing alongside us (the mark we wear in our finitude). While I’m not sure Brassier pulls this off (I suspect that you’re right there, and I really appreciate the distinction between the structure of Nihilism as such versus specific nihilisms, which I think clarifies a lot), I think that’s ultimately what he’s going for.

  4. I should also add that I don’t say any of this as an ardent defender of Brassier or anything, since I actually don’t agree with his ultimate position. I simply think it’s interesting and worth working out and understanding.

  5. Oh thanks for the quotation!!

    Its very interesting indeed, but am afraid that it is still not quite clear for me why the fact that everything has already happened leads to the fact that everything is already dead. It does not make that much sense if we think about it beyond what is written. Yes my death is ‘a fact in the time of creation’, but am not dead now. What would happen if we take very literally the fact that we are not already dead? Can we do so literally even though our death is something that has already happened? Of course we can. The event of life as a fact has nothing to do with my death nor with my factual non-existence. Lets say that they don’t share the same event-horizon: fact & death are not homologable or comparable as death is just a ‘type’ or a ‘class’ of fact. It is very important in a very human scale, but it is not in the cosmic or the infinite scale. So we cannot take them as the same thing at the same level: death is not even important if we consider the scale of ‘the solar catastrophe’ mentioned by Brassier. Far from what any text can say, we are literally alive and not already death: this is the fact that should concerns to us in terms of we ‘already living’, as ‘we’ are still talking about our own lives, at this very moment, even thought we are saying or writing about philosophy, and mostly if we consider ourselves as philosophers.

    I know its not very orthodox & that is still roughly expressed, but this is my ‘reasoning’ ;-P I think am thinking this matter as an affirmation of life, regarding to the event of creation, and considering what i understand about Nietzsche & vitalism. So i can´t see any nihilism around this question, not yet.

    Thanks for letting me express my thoughts, am not trying to convince anyone here, am just sharing my non-elaborated views in other to learn a bit more about all this things, so i truely appreciate this opportunity to territorialize & exercise my english. i hope am not disturbing anyone by doing so ;-P

    cheers 😉

  6. “I think my problem is that while I agree that for Ray our destiny is in “being-nothing,” it is always more than our end, because it is also our origin.”

    Right, which is exactly the way teleology works in Thomistic thought. That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. We think because we’re already dead is a translation into a nihilistic grammar of something like, “we only persist in the light of He who Created us” or some other Thomistic statement. Aquinas’ re-working of Aristotle’s causality in the light of a personal God says exactly this same thing, that we are tending toward an end that is also our origin. The efficient and the final cause/end are the same.

    For many Christians this gives some sense of meaning, but you’ll notice that it has a nihilistic hint in its awaiting messianic consummation as no thing in the world has any value within itself, but only in its relatedness or its truth as only the Absolute, God, holds. I see Brassier re-working this, though maybe not consciously, from behind. Instead of everything having worth, but not in itself, nothing is worthwhile in itself under the conditions of its already being dead, which in some ways opens up a radical place of freedom (though without necessity). One may ask why a nihilist gets married, but it isn’t, from within the nihilist circle, a real question since to marry or not marry both carry the same being nothing. This ethical component to Brassier, and the other self-proclaimed nihilists (I’m not partaking in RO style tactics here), isn’t clear and I’m not sure it will be clear anytime soon since his new project is related to epistemology. For instance, it seems that his criticism of folk thought carries with it an imperative to know the truth (though what exactly the truth is seems to be a mix here of Badiou and the Vienna Circle, I think we’re getting a fuller picture in his next project), but why is that an imperative if it is essentially being nothing? There is a promise that these worthless things, which we are so chained to and act as if they have meaning, will one day be given their real identity, their nihilistic salvation so to speak, in actually being nothing (whereas now it is more of a kind of Pauline already really nothing/not yet truly nothing) Though it has been about nearly two years since I read Nihil Unbound, so perhaps he did develop this further.

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  10. himanshu damle

    hi,

    I have had grave problems with the understanding of the difference between ‘future’ and ‘l’avenir’ in the Derrida’s context. This is crazy, because the text trying to make this distinction clear is clear enough, but with the hold on the thought being conceived by the being, this clarity indeed gets obscured or maybe is smashed and this is thanks to correlationism, i guess. this guesswork is deconstructible, a a framework that is deterministic. or just maybe.
    by the way, is there any thought that is kind of trying to form an alliance between ‘l’avenir’ of derrida and the potentialities of agamben. i would surely be interested in this comparison. could this be really a bridge between the ideas of the two differing thinkers? would love to hear from you on this.
    anyways, your post reminds of what E.M Forster once said, “Death destroys a man, the idea of it saves him.”
    this is specifically after you talk about the conditionality of life in extinction. waiting for your counter comments.

    thank you,
    himanshu damle

  11. I’m not sure how clear I can be about this distinction, but I will give it a shot. The future for Derrida is always deconstructable because it is entirely predictable and calculable. The future is precisely whatever we want it to be through our investment in it; it is never a surprise because we have always already decided what the future will be. L’avenir however is defined as the unpredictable coming of the Other. One can never anticipate this arrival because it breaks with all of our expectations; the Other is defined in terms of Levinasian transcendence meaning it is always more than we can deal with. L’avenir is also more than we can deal with, it is a shock to the system of the self-same, it is traumatic.

    I don’t know Agamben’s work at all and so couldn’t answer your question about the relationship of his potentialities and Derrida’s l’avenir.

  12. himanshu damle

    Michael,

    If l’avenir is never anticipated because it breaks with all our expectations, does this not mean that somewhere in time, we are faced up with it and hence only then it breaks the expectations. if it is pregnant with possibilities more than what we could fathom, in a sense, are we not aware of this pregnancy and hence in a crude manner aware of the deterministic inflated possibilities this would entail. i guess, it is traumatic, because we could never really get to the point in time where the expectations betray us, as this future is evasive. we are entirely hopeless of its ever coming, like Derrida says about the Democracy to come, the always yet to be….
    this is traumatic. what do you say to this?
    himanshu damle

  13. Toby Toole

    1st I want to thank Complete Lies for this stuff on Brassier meets Derrida. I’m currently enjoying my struggle through Nihil Unbound, & looking forward to RB’s “Alien Theory” doc diss. 2nd, I think there’s a little tripping over the basics when it comes to Derrida meets Brassier,etc. Namely, IMO the primary issue between them will always be the issue of science’s status. To put it bluntly: I believe that from a Derrida POV, RB seems to be clearly engaging in a (wait for it…) Metaphysics of Presence. Shocking, no? We can add Brassier’s name to the rolls…the 8 millionth philosopher to be so guilty. Derrida (Geoffery Bennington writes in “Derridabase” is always frustrating to both the conservative & the revolutionary. RB & the SR gang generally are clearly of the revolutionary stripe. This science status question is manifested best as an issue of commitment. For Derrida, all that is ever done must find its way back to us & vice versa because (blast of trumpets!) “there is nothing outside of the text”. It’s an anti-Tower of Babel-thing, if you will. RB seems to saying, “Take a look at the past century of science! What we find is the exact opposite: we are being erased by what we discover! To such an extent that: there really is (when one adopts the ‘ultimate’ impersonal POV based in science’s evidence) no ‘what’, no ‘we’, & nothing to ‘discover’!”

    Bottomline: JD’s “yes, yes” can never truly be revolutionary because of this (Heideggerianistic) insistence on (‘human’-whatever that is, was?) commitment. RB & the SR gang are showing me that JD was actually QUITE conservative. I always knew that he was annoying. Thanx!

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