Tag Archives: deconstruction

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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The Next Big Thing (Uncharted Waters)

Graham has a great post up on “the next big thing” in philosophy, in reference to the recent flurry of activity in regards to Badiou.

What I especially liked about this post was the following:

In continental philosophy, the cutting edge is usually wherever 25-30 year-olds are working right now. The senior figures in continental philosophy are more likely to still be working on whatever was hot when they were 25-30. (My older Department colleagues, bless them, still think Merleau-Ponty and Derrrida are the latest news. Nothing against Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, but they are obviously not the latest news. I assume this would be far less likely to happen in analytic philosophy circles.)

This reminded me of my undergraduate thesis experience. My grad advisor, Sean, taught at my undergrad institute and was going to supervise my thesis on Eckhart and Heidegger (and at the time, Derrida). My basic premise was that while contemporary philosophy of religion (Caputo, Kearney, and Marion) were enthralled in the “innovations” of Heidegger and Derrida (on ontotheology and negative theology) that the same innovations could be found in Eckhart’s German sermons, that almost identical moves had been made. The hope was to use this as ammunition for an eventual revival of Eckhart, who, while Caputo even has a book on Heidegger and Eckhart, has been mostly overlooked in contemporary philosophy of religion. I was excited about this, and Sean was excited as well.

Unfortunately, Sean left and came to my current school, which is where he’s from originally. He and his wife moved back here to raise their son. At the time I was really upset because I’d already begun work on my thesis and thought I would have to find a new topic, which I really didn’t want. I met with my new advisor, who specializes in Aristotle and Virtue Ethics. He assured me that I could keep my same topic, and that he had an interest in both mysticism and Medieval philosophy. I was relieved to say the least.

After working on the first half of my thesis in the Fall, the half on Heidegger, ontotheology, and Eckhart, I had a meeting with him. I was told he didn’t want me to do the Derrida half, that this should be a thesis on Heidegger and Eckhart. I didn’t understand why, considering Derrida was (and still is) highly relevant to the philosophy of religion. My advisor told me that Derrida hadn’t proved himself to be a lasting figure yet. I was stunned. I considered myself something of a deconstructionist at the time, and had plans to study it further in grad school and was being told that what I was working on, what I was planning to continue working on, wasn’t a proven system yet even though Derrida had just died and had been producing work for decades, not to mention all of the work of other deconstructionists. All of the contemporary people I was working with for my thesis were highly influenced by Derrida. Again, I was stunned.

The rest of the year was spent miserably trying to turn what I had thought was simply a chapter, less than half of my total thesis, into the thesis itself. I was depressed, angry, and confused. My advisor became more and more critical of the contemporary thinkers I was using for my thesis, telling me that I needed to be doing a historical thesis. I tried to explain that I was doing a work of hermeneutics (which had been the point all along) which he also seemed to scoff at. To top it off, I found out early on that my advisor wasn’t reading any of the books I was reading. I had read the complete works of Eckhart, Heidegger’s Identity and Difference, a couple of books by Caputo (The Mystical Element of Heidegger’s Thought, and Weak Theology), a couple by Marion (God Without Being, and Being Given), and one by Kearney (The God Who May Be), plus assorted essays and secondary sources. My advisor didn’t read any of them.

I had a couple of good courses that year though, a seminar on Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, and a seminar on Foucault which I sat in one (it was a sociology course and I lacked the pre-reqs). What I loved about these courses is that in the case of Merleau-Ponty, I was understanding the context of Jean-Luc Marion much better, while reading Foucault furthered the interest I already had in Deleuze.

I realized that year that while I am interested in the history of philosophy as it is broadly understood, I wanted to be doing contemporary work, looking for that next big thing. I think that’s why when I came here for my MA, while I had planned originally to write a thesis on Derrida (essentially writing what would have been the second half of my undergrad thesis) I quickly abandoned it to study the contemporary relevance of Schelling, reading Grant’s book, along with a lot of Zizek.

Basically, I was very unhappy working with someone who thought the history of philosophy (at least continental philosophy) ended sometime in the beginning of the 20th Century. Now I’m working with someone who is much more understanding of my interests, and has even started reading speculative realism texts in order to also understand the next big thing.

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Presence and Negative Theology

This is inspired by the following quote from Graham’s blog on deconstruction:

“Hägglund follows Derrida in conflating ontotheology with realism. He doesn’t do this sloppily, but openly proclaims the identity of the two, when attacking Kevin Hart’s claim that pseudo-Dionysius is a deconstructive thinker.

Hägglund does this with a turn of phrase that might sound congenial to my own work, though in fact it’s diametrically opposed. Hart claims that the God of negative theology is deconstructive because it lies beyond all affirmation and negation. Hägglund counters that this is still classically metaphysical, because being beyond human predication does not mean being beyond classical concepts of identity and presence.”

Now, I don’t know Hägglund, but I do know Derrida and negative theology. As much as I really like some of Derrida’s work (his Hauntology, obviously), I’m fairly critical of his work on negative theology and Hägglund seems to be making (based on this tiny bit at least) the same mistake that Derrida made. That is, conflating all Neo-Platonisms (and there are many). While it is true that some thinkers in this tradition have made God = Being and made Being = One, this is not a universal claim for all Neo-Platonists.

Pseudo-Dionysius is actually an excellent example of this, because he places no highest in his system, but leaves the space empty for the mysterious God whose face is never seen.

“Trinity!! Higher than any being,
any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians
in the wisdom of heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,
up to the farthest, highest peak
of mystic scripture,
where the mysteries of God’s Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
they pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
they completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.”

– Pseudo-Dionysius

What does this mean? Well, when Hägglund says that “being beyond human predication does not mean being beyond classical concepts of identity and presence” it means that actually, it could be beyond classical concepts of identity and presence. The whole point of negative theology is to deny that God is = Presence (or perhaps as a negative theologian would say “mere Presence”). The point is that no claim can be affirmed. I’m much more sympathetic to Kevin Hart in this case, as my own reading of Negative Theology (at least Pseudo-Dionysius, and Meister Eckhart as those are the thinkers in this tradition I’m most comfortable / familiar with) is quite deconstructive. When Eckhart “prays God to rid [him] of God” is is precisely a deconstructive move, a claim that God must be MORE THAN GOD HIMSELF or else He’s not God. In this way, God cannot be made mere presence and when Pseudo-Dionysius makes God = Highest (actually, higher than the Highest!), it is a move away from the pitfalls of presence, to a God that is always more than Presence, but is actually that which gives Presence (since God is Love). I’d suggest that if anyone wants to read more about this, Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being and his essay “In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of ‘Negative Theology'” are both excellent sources, even if you’re not a fan of his phenomenology (which I’m not).

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Derrida and Realism

When I wrote my undergrad thesis, I had it clear in my mind what I wanted to write. My thesis was to be on how the two greatest critiques of the Philosophy of the Middle Ages constructed in the Twentieth Century had already been written and solved by Meister Eckhart.

The first of these two critiques was Heidegger’s critique of onto-theo-logy, which became the topic of my thesis. At some point I’ll have a revised edition of my thesis (it will be published as an essay by this time next year) and I’ll share it here.

The second of these critiques was Derrida’s critique of negative theology. My intention when coming out here for grad school was to write this as my MA thesis. At the time, I was hopeful in regards to deconstruction, and I was quite taken by the possibilities held within this school when it came to religion.

Of course, that didn’t last. I quickly became dissatisfied with people like John Caputo (and his Weak Theology), and abandoned my thesis on deconstruction in order to find the “superior empiricism” of Schelling’s early work. I see connections between Schelling’s Naturphilosophie and thinkers like Bergson and Deleuze, who I’ve become quite taken with. This obviously puts me squarely into some sort of realism, whereas deconstruction seems to be some sort of textual idealism, lost in language.

But what do we do with Derrida? There seems to be much of his writing worth working with. I still see his Hauntology as particularly important (although I see proto-hauntological ideas in Schelling’s Clara and his Weltalter). The idea of the spectre, and more importantly, of parts of reality that are missing or incomplete (or even decaying) seem applicable to a new Schellingianism (not that unlike the old Schellingianism. . . ), a realist Schellingianism, but an “imperfect” realism.

So is there room for Derrida in a realist philosophy, or must we abandon him entirely?

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