I began reading Ray Brassier’s dissertation today, Alien Theory: The Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter. Throughout he deals heavily with Laruelle, Deleuze and Guattari, Michel Henry, Churchland, and Quine. If the opening pages are any indication, his forthcoming work with Palgrave, Nihil Unbound, will be a true tour de force. The work is rigorously developed, wide ranging (dealing with both specific epistemological, ontological, and political questions), and argued in a vigorous and spirited fashion. The following passage left me shaking with excitement and filled with relief, feeling as if perhaps the malaise of the primacy of anthropocentricism, culturalism, and the linguistic turn are, at long last, coming to an end and it is becoming possible to philosophize once again without being shackled to the phenomenological condition. I quote at length.
Challenged by the philosopher to provide something like an ‘adequate’ account of the phenomenon of human sapience, the scientist, distilling the various insights provided by evolutionary biology, AI, and thermodynamics, is in a position to put forward a perfectly precise response: human sapience, like many other instances of negentropic energy capture, is a carbon based variety of information processing system, and nothing besides. The philosopher of course will immediately protest that the response is ‘inadequate’ vis a vis the phenomenon in question because hopelessly reductive. But it is not more reductive than the claim that water is nothing but H20; that temperature is nothing but mean molecular kinetic energy; or that the colour red is nothing but electromagnetic radiation with a determinate spiking frequency. All scientific truth is ‘reductive’ precisely insofar as it dissolves the veneer of phenomenological familiarity concomitant with the limited parameters of anthropomorphic perspective. The real question the philosopher has to ask him/herself is this: what is it exactly about the scientist’s banal but remarkably well-supported statement that he or she finds so intolerably ‘reductive’? Is not part of the philosophers unease concerning scientific ‘reduction’ directly attributable to the unavowed wish that, as far as man is concerned, there always be ‘something’ left over beside the material: some ineffable, unquantifiable meta-physical residue, some irreducible transcendental remainder?
Nowhere is this unavowable philosophical longing more transparent than in the phenomenological project, which seems determined to stave off this putative ‘disenchantment’ of phenomena by science by delmiting a dimension of radically unobjectifiable transcendence: that of the phenomenon’s invisible phenomenality. It is with the inapparent ‘how’ of the phenomenon’s appearing, rather than the ‘what’ which appears, that transcendental phenomenology concerns itself. Yet the phenomenological conception of ‘phenomenality’ seems to us so dangerously narrow and parochial as to render the much-vaunted project of a ‘transcendental phenomenological ontology’ into an insidious form of anthropmorphic imperialism [amen to that, and likewise to any position that would shackle all being to language, culture, etc]. If the conception of ‘phenomenon’ is, in Heidegger’s definition, that of something ‘which shows itself in itself’, a ‘self-showing’ which ‘manifests itself in and through itself alone’, then we require:
1. A rigorously theoretical, rather than intuitive, definition of individuation in order to explain what is to count as an individuated appearance, one which does not simply reinstate the metaphysical circularity implicit in Leibniz’s maxim according to which, ‘to be is to be one thing’.
2. A rigorously theoretical, rather than intuitive account of ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’ which does not surreptitiously invoke the predominantly optical paradigm of sensory perception which we are empirically familiar.
On both of these counts, phenomenology– whether it take intentional consciousness or human being-in-the-world as its starting point –seems to us to remain wanting: it illegitimately universalises a paradigm of ‘phenomenality’ constructed on the basis of intuitions about individuation and manifestation derived from our empirical perception of middle-sized objects. Yet in exactly what sense, for instance, can the Big Bang, the Cambrian Explosion, or a 26 dimensional superstring (phenomena which are strictly unphenomenologisable precisely because they remain utterly unintuitable in terms of our habitual statio-temporal parameters), be said to be things that ‘show themselves in themselves’? What are the parameters of this ‘showing’? To whom and for who is it supposed to occur? Whence does the mysterious faculty of intuition that is supposed to provide us with an immediately pre-theoretical access to the phenomenological essence of these rigorously imperceptible entities originate?
The standard phenomenological rejoinder to such questions, which consists in protesting that these, along with all other varieties of scientific object, are merely ‘theoretical’ entities whose mode of being derives from that ‘more originary’ mode of phenomenality concomitant with our ‘primordial’ pre-theoretical engagement with ‘the things themselves’, is hopelessly question-begging. Belief in this pseuo-originary, pre-theoretical dimension of experiential immediacy is the phenomenological superstition par excellence.
Briefly: the claim that intentional consciousness subtends a continuum of eidetic intution running from tables and chairs at one end to transfinite cardinals and hyperdimensional superstrings at the other is grotesquely reductive. Just as the suggestion that objects of ‘regiional ontology’ such as quarks, leptons and black holes have as their ultimate ontological root in Dasein’s being-in-the-world (or the subject’s infinite responsibility for the Other; or the auto-affecting pathos of subjective Life [Michel Henry]) is an outrageous instance of anthropocentric idealism. If anyone is guilty of imperialistic reductionism as far as the extraordinary richness and complexity of the universe is concerned, it is the phenomenological idealist rather than the scientific materialist. Husserl’s idealism is as punitive as it is unmistakable:
The existence of Nature cannot be the condition for the existence of consciousness since Nature itself turns out to be a correlate of consciousness: Nature is only as being constituted in regular concatations of consciousness. (Husserl, 1982, 116)
When it was written in 1913– a full 54 years after the publication of Darwin’s On the origins of Species –this statement was already profoundly reactionary. Now, 142 years after Darwin, Husserl’s idealism is utterly indefensible– unless it be by those who approve of phenomenology’s boundless contempt for natural science. The choice with which we are confronted is as clear as it is unavoidable: either Darwin or Husserl. To continue to persist on the course initiated by the latter is to plunge headlong into intellectual disaster and the ruin of philosophy as a credible theoretical enterprise. The future vouchsafed to philosophy by phenomenology is too dismall to contemplate: a terminally infantile, pathologicall narcissistic anthropocentrism. The situation is too grave, the stakes too high to allow for equivocation or compromise.
Once again, the issue seems to us to boil down to a simple matter of intellectual honesty, a blunt but irrecusable alternative that no amount of conceptual obfuscation or rhetorical sophistry can obviate. Either the philosopher insists that man is de jure irreducible to the natural ontological order investigated by science because the essence of human being is transcendence (subjectivity, Spirit, Dasein, etc.), in which case everything science implies concerning the ontologically derivative character rather than transcendentally constitutive character of Homo Sapiensfalse; or scientific statements of the type ‘Man is a carbon-based information processing system’ are true, not just ’empirically adequate’ or ‘factually correct’–, and man is not a transcendent exception to the cosmos but just one relatively commonplace material phenomenon among others. There is no longer any room within the bounds of a univocally physical natural order for a special category of putatively trans-natural being called ‘human’. (14-17)
A little further on:
Against such reactionary philosophical protectionism, it is the business of a thoroughgoing naturalism to emphasize– rather than minimize –the corrosive power of scientific reductionism vis a vis both the tenets of phenomenological orthodoxy and the established parameters of socio-cultural consensus. The task can be achieved by exposing the entirely contingent, conventional character of the phenomenological self-image promulgated through the myth of subjective interiority; by denouncing the hallucinatory character of privileged access [the lynchpin of all foundationalist demands]; and by inveighing against the illusory authority of the first-person perspective; myths which, whether taken separately or in combination, serve to shore up the subjectivist ideology through which liberal democratic capitalism convinces a stupified population of consumers that they are sovereign individuals, naturally endowed with freedom of choice, and that the interests of subjective freedom coincide with the interests of a free market economy. It is by punturing the persistent myths of first-person autonomy and of the irreducibility of consciousness; it is by excoriating the apparently inviolable ubiquity of the cultural privilege which folk psychological superstition has successfully arrogated itself through the process of its enshrinement in the medium of natural language, that a virulently anti-phenomenological skepticism of the kind espoused by Quine, or an eliminative materialism such as that endorsed by Paul Churchland, suggesting as they do that a radical reconfiguration both of our own self-image and of our vision of the world around us is always possible, can help undermine those phenomenological Ur-doxas which help perpetuate the cultural consensus manufactured by capitalism. (21)
To Quine and Churchland, he also adds Dennett’s work in biology as the most eloquent and creative of the three. At any rate, wow, just wow. Open the windows and let in the fresh air. It’s been beginning to stink in here for quite a while, what with the lingering odors of Germanicism, postmodern language philosophy, and anthropocentric police forces striving to carve out a free zone for themselves in the face of science. As my friend Melanie likes to argue, art, philosophy, and theory must always think closely with the latest developments in science (just as science must think closely with the developments in these other practices). For too long, however, it seems that philosophy and theory have adopted a reactionary stance, seeking to disavow these developments, by asserting the primacy of a phenomenological being-in-the-world, or the hegemony of language games. It seems that a particular style of philosophy is quickly coming to an end, even if there are many still walking about like Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense. I, for one, would like to be the first to welcome our new insect overlords.
UPDATE: Marc Goodman has kindly provided a link to the entire dissertation here (warning pdf). Given the passages I quoted, I do not wish to give the impression that Brassier simply mobilizes a variety of sciences to debunk varieties of idealism. The particular passages quoted come from the introduction where he’s discussing his commitments. The remainder of the text rigorously engages with varieties of idealism and materialism, drawing heavily on the “non-philosophy” of Laruelle in relation to figures such as Deleuze, Michel Henry, Husserl, Heidegger, Kant, etc., to develop an account of matter free of idealism. That is, his argument unfolds at the level of philosophemes. Not having ever read a word of Laruelle, I’m not entirely sure what he’s up to yet.