Basically I read it as a series of critiques of contemporary philosophers with a single MO — determine the philosopher’s version of “anthropocentrism,” draw out its implications for his system, repeat.
Each time a kernel of something is extracted, and by the last chapter each of these fragments is allowed to hang there uncoalesced, outlining a position deferred (at the earliest) to the book’s sequel. The key points are these: anti-anthropocentrism trumps pomo antihumanism, and the only ground remaining is the object, emptied of all metaphysical ‘substance.’ Consequently, objects are not equivalent to their formulation in discourse or even in thought. Philosophical reflection, constantly struggling to approximate itself to the objects that cause it, undermines its own efforts by trying to reverse or at least obscure that causal relation. As Foucault’s “anonymous thinking,” science effectively sidesteps consciousness’s repetitive attempts to situate itself. There’s a footnote (13) where Brassier gives a nod to Lenin’s Materialism and Empirico-Criticism , but it’s hard to tell what his new version of anti-idealism really adds aside from some very sophisticated critiques of continental philosophers. He pretty soundly nails the contemporary heirs of Kant and Hegel, but what about Marx’s reversal of the assumptions of idealism? What is gained by favoring realism over materialism?
Nihilism of the intellect, fundamentalism of the object…Brassier’s denial of the self carries a certain penitential element. Our errant consciousness is restricted to a diet of bread and water and forty lashes a day, permitted to lay claim to nothing as punishment for formerly laying claim to everything. “Everything is dead already,” Brassier asserts against idealism’s endless variations on the subject of “what will have been.” Consciousness demands an encounter with the Real as the guarantee of truth. But if consciousness is literally an afterthought, then all the great themes of philosophy — ‘reality’ as an ontological state, the Real as the trauma of finitude/extinction, and speculation — become meaningless. Only objects are. Since thought is always thought of objects, the commonplace idealist move of granting thought itself a positive role (defended on many a theory blog) is denied in advance.
What I don’t understand about this book’s reception is the widespread feeling that it opens new doors for philosophy. Fredric Jameson argues somewhere that the major problem for culture (and by extension, philosophy) in the era of ‘postmodernism’ is innovation, how to create something new. That ‘new’ for Jameson is something with the potential to build a new society. I could very well be missing the point, but it seems to me Brassier (unlike the other ‘speculative realists,’ especially Harman) radically limits the possibility of strictly philosophical innovation. Once it is established that objects cause thought (and that the real is the suicide of consciousness from within ontology), ‘concept creation’ becomes an entirely superfluous exercise unless it has to do with different instantiations of those objects in different contexts (or, in the case of consciousness, different ways of approaching the fact of its nonexistence).
But again, Lenin already cleared this whole thing up:
This theory of the necessity of “mentally projecting” the human mind to every object and to nature prior to man is given by me in the first paragraph in the words of the “recent positivist,” R. Avenarius, and in the second, in the words of the subjective idealist, J. G. Fichte. The sophistry of this theory is so manifest that it is embarrassing to analyse it. If we “mentally project” ourselves, our presence will be imaginary—but the existence of the earth prior to man is real. Man could not in practice be an observer, for instance, of the earth in an incandescent state, and to “imagine” his being present at the time is obscurantism, exactly as though I were to endeavour to prove the existence of hell by the argument that if I “mentally projected” myself thither as an observer I could observe hell. The “reconciliation” of empirio-criticism and natural science amounts to this, that Avenarius graciously consents to “mentally project” something the possibility of admitting which is excluded by natural science. No man at all educated or sound-minded doubts that the earth existed at a time when there could not have been any life on it, any sensation or any “central term,” and consequently the whole theory of Mach and Avenarius, from which it follows that the earth is a complex of sensations (“bodies are complexes of sensations”) or “complexes of elements in which the psychical and physical are identical,” or “a counter-term of which the central term can never be equal to zero,” is philosophical obscurantism, the carrying of subjective idealism to absurdity.
Bogdanov, pretending to argue only against Beltov and cravenly ignoring Engels, is indignant at such definitions, which, don’t you see, “prove to be simple repetitions” (Empirio-Monism, Bk. III, p. xvi) of the “formula” (of Engels, our “Marxist” forgets to add) that for one trend in philosophy matter is primary and spirit secondary, while for the other trend the reverse is the case. All the Russian Machians exultantly echo Bogdanov’s “refutation”! But the slightest reflection could have shown these people that it is impossible, in the very nature of the case, to give any definition of these two ultimate concepts of epistemology save one that indicates which of them is taken as primary. What is meant by giving a “definition”? It means essentially to bring a given concept within a more comprehensive concept. For example, when I give the definition “an ass is an animal,” I am bringing the concept “ass” within a more comprehensive concept. The question then is, are there more comprehensive concepts, with which the theory of knowledge could operate, than those of being and thinking, matter and sensation, physical and mental? No. These are the ultimate concepts, the most comprehensive concepts which epistemology has in point of fact so far not surpassed (apart from changes in nomenclature, which are always possible). One must be a charlatan or an utter blockhead to demand a “definition” of these two “series” of concepts of ultimate comprehensiveness which would not be a “mere repetition”: one or the other must be taken as the primary. Take the three afore-mentioned arguments on matter. What do they all amount to? To this, that these philosophers proceed from the mental or the self, to the physical, or environment, as from the central term to the counter-term—or from sensation to matter, or from sense-perception to matter. Could Avenarius, Mach and Pearson in fact have given any other “definition” of these fundamental concepts, save by pointing to the trend of their philosophical line? Could they have defined in any other way, in any specific way, what the self is, what sensation is, what sense-perception is? One has only to formulate the question clearly to realise what utter non-sense the Machians are talking when they demand that the materialists give a definition of matter which would not amount to a repetition of the proposition that matter, nature, being, the physical—is primary, and spirit, consciousness, sensation, the psychical—is secondary. One expression of the genius of Marx and Engels was that they despised pedantic playing with new words, erudite terms, and subtle “isms,” and said simply and plainly: there is a materialist line and an idealist line in philosophy, and between them there are various shades of agnosticism. The painful quest for a “new” point of view in philosophy betrays the same poverty of mind that is revealed in the painful effort to create a “new” theory of value, or a “new” theory of rent, and so forth.
So when philosophers pronounce with great urgency that “we need a new concept for x,” or “a new way to think x,” we should immediately prepare ourselves for some heavily aestheticized armchair political theorizing. Rethinking the use-value of a given reification can give us little else. For what Lenin dismisses as “pedantic playing with new words” is not innocent unless our analysis is restricted to the psychology of the individual theorist (and often not even then). Rather, it represents the initial fumbling efforts at revising ideology to fit changing circumstances.
With the problem of reification, however, we assume the possibility of thought becoming an object in language. The idea of linguistic strings as second-order objects is mostly left out of Brassier’s book, also typical of the rest of his colleagues — indeed, this is usually what’s considered liberating about their work. Language has fallen back into the realm of frivolity and excessive risk, when for a while it occupied that of tragedy. Jarring that the idea of an ontologically or epistemologically constitutive power of language is more or less dropped rather than refuted, in favor of returning language to its secondary status. This bold move gives speculative realism its rhetorical power. Even though I’m not sure anyone ever explicitly made the hard constructivist argument about language in the first place (of course assertions presupposing that argument abounded). Change — it must have been in the air.
My lightly educated view of the function of consciousness and subjectification is basically evolutionary: something like the social exploitation of trauma. This would likely include animal warning cries, political speeches, orientalism, crying babies, post facto rationalization, love, etc. Brassier’s scorched-earth eliminativism has a utopian austerity that I confess I find appealing. Thought indifferent to the subject, and though not explicitly stated as such, an intellectual ethics of truth rather than desire. The dialectic of being and becoming trumped by the active opening of being-nothing:
“Extinction is real yet not empirical, since it is not of the order of experience. It is transcendental yet not ideal, since it coincides with the external objectification of thought unfolding at a specific historical juncture when the resources of intelligibility, and hence the lexicon of ideality, are being renegotiated. In this regard, it is precisely the extinction of meaning that clears the way for the intelligibility of extinction. Senselessness and purposelessness are not merely privative; they represent a gain in intelligibility. The cancellation of sense, purpose, and possibility marks the point at which the ‘horror’ concomitant with the impossibility of either being or not-being becomes intelligible. Thus, if everything is dead already, this is not only because extinction disables those possibilities which were taken to be constitutive of life and existence, but also because the will to know is driven by the traumatic reality of extinction, and strives to become equal to the trauma of the in-itself whose trace it bears. In becoming equal to it, philosophy achieves a binding of extinction, through which the will to know is finally rendered commensurate with the in-itself. This binding coincides with the objectification of thinking understood as the adequation without correspondence between the objective reality of extinction and the subjective knowledge of the trauma to which it gives rise. It is this adequation that constitutes the truth of extinction. But to acknowledge this truth, the subject of philosophy must also recognize that he or she is already dead, and that philosophy is neither a medium of affirmation nor a source of justification, but rather the organon of extinction.”
But the activity from which this program emerged could only have involved a great deal of solitary confinement, a praxis of (ecstatic?) self-flagellation, possibly accompanied and enhanced by CNN’s bad dreams, and carried out on the therapist’s empty couch…