Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction

by Ray Brassier
Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007
256 pp. Trade, $84.5
ISBN: 978-0-230-52204-6.

Reviewed by Eugene Thacker
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology


It has become a truism that superhero narratives are interesting not for the morally upstanding virtues of the heroes, but for the critiques of those virtues put forth by the villains. But not all villains are alike – some just want the simple things in life (money, power, love), while others take on villainy as a form of therapy. Beyond these kinds of villains, there is a special type – the arch-villain. The arch-villain is not only the inverted double of the hero, but, whereas the hero builds up a moral axiomatic system, the arch-villain undermines it by chipping away at its weak points and its fissures, delighting in the ruses of contradiction, inconsistency, paradox. The aim of the arch-villain is not simply to destroy the world, but more specifically to be present at its destruction, to bear witness to the end of the world – or, in a kind of inverted memorial, to bear witness to the creation of a nothingness at the heart of the world. This is also a problematic that is portrayed in many science fiction narratives (especially of the “space opera” sort), but it can also be seen in the long tradition of apocalyptic narratives in the monotheistic traditions (and here the problematic is often resolved by having God fulfill the arch-villain’s role of bearing witness to the end of the world). The arch-villain exemplifies this basic dilemma, which is really a philosophical problematic: how to achieve total annihilation without being annihilated. Or, put another way: how think the absolute extinction of thought.

This question is at the heart of Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. The strength of Brassier’s book is to have reinvented the question of nihilism as a philosophical question, after Nietzsche, Sartre, and postmodernism. While nilhilism is often dismissed as a disenchantment with the world that doesn’t make sense, and that doesn’t make sense “for us,” it can also be regarded as the pinnacle of thought itself, taken to its logical conclusion. If nihilism, for both Nietzsche and Sartre, was something to be overcome (either by a revaluation of all values or by a renewed theory of the subject), for Brassier nihilism in our contemporary era is something different. What does nihilism mean today, in relation to groups like Anonymous, or Griefing, or to the Voluntary Human Extinction movement? Nihilism is not, in Brassier’s hands, something reducible to psychology, or to the ressentiment of a subject in crisis about its own subjectivity. Neither is it a symptom of the failure of reason to adequately comprehend and find meaning in the world, settling for the compromise of language games and the free play of signifiers. For Brassier, nihilism is “the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which, despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable” (xi). Nihilism is interesting precisely because it poses the question of a fundamental incommensurability between thinking and living, between subject and world.

Brassier’s book is divided into three parts, each of which deals with a particular facet of nihilism. The first part looks at nihilism at the product of a disjunction between thought and reality, reason and nature. Brassier addresses this question in the philosophy of science (including the work of Wilfrid Sellars and Paul Churchland, and the development of cognitive neuroscience), while juxtaposing this to the critique of scientific reason in the Frankfurt School. Part One closes with what is one of the most intelligent readings of Quentin Meillassoux’s concept of “correlationism” (put simply, a limit-concept that demonstrates that any thought of X is always a thought of X).

In Part Two Brassier takes an in-depth look at two contemporary attempts to address the limit-point of thought/reality, reason/nature introduced in Part One – the “subtractive philosophy” of Alain Badiou, and the “non-philosophy” of François Laruelle. This is heavy-duty reading, to be sure, and while Brassier does offer an introduction of sorts to these notoriously difficult thinkers, but what makes these chapters work is Brassier’s attention to detail (I like to think this is partly attributable to Brassier’s previous work as a translator…). Brassier is a very careful reader, focusing on how each thinker addresses the problem of nihilism through a rethinking of the concept of negation. Nihilism poses a limit – a limit concerning the negation meaning in and of the world, the negation of a verifiable reality, the negation of a verifiable subject, the negation of being itself. But this limit, beyond which there is nothing (or a void), is also that which underpins the possibility of thought itself. Simplifying to the extreme, what both Badiou and Laruelle bring to the table is what we might call the two negativities of nihilism: first, that there is no reliable correlation between thought and world, and second, that thought is not something interior to an individuated subjectivity. Brassier shows how Badiou’s hybrid of continental philosophy and mathematics (particularly set theory), and Laruelle’s “axiomatic” philosophy both attempt to rethink this negativity of nihilism.

The work in Part Two essentially sets the stage for the third and final part of the book. Here Brassier puts forth an application of an ontology of nihilism to nihilism’s favored topic – the end of the world. The idea of extinction dominates these chapters, and arguably the book as a whole. And it is specifically the idea of extinction that is key here – that is, the paradox of the thought of the absolute negation of thought. In the scientific sense, extinction is at once a verifiable reality (e.g. calculations on the extinction of the sun and solar system), and yet it is so far removed as to be effectively ideal. It is for this reason that Brassier notes that “extinction is real yet not empirical” (238). It is not so much that there can be no observer of the event of extinction (as with the example of the fossil, a primary example used by Meillassoux), but that extinction does away with the very dichotomy of observer and event altogether. As Brassier puts it: “How does thought think the death of thinking?” (223).

The two thinkers Brassier engages with here are Heidegger (particularly in the relation between extinction, death, and time) and Nietzsche. In the latter we find the dilemma of nihilism put into the form of a fable - that of the eternal recurrence. If everything amounts to nothing, then why bother? But the “nothing” introduced here is not an absence of thought; quite the opposite. Nietzsche was also an expert diagnostician who tabulated different types of nihilism – passive nihilism, active nihilism, perfect nihilism (if nothing is true, then “nothing is true” is also not true), even a transcendental nihilism (the repetition of perfect nihilism that produces a coincidence of contraries). Brassier reads Nietzsche’s dilemma of nihilism – and its iterations in Freud’s “death drive,” Levinas’ “impossibility of possibility”, and Lyotard’s “solar catastrophe” – not as an injunction to form a new moral or ethical philosophy, but as ideas that present themselves as a kind of divestiture of the human, the human as grounded in the interiority of thought, in the faith of the correlation between thought and world, in the reliance of the meaning of the world as at once at-hand and on-hand for us as human beings.

Nihil Unbound is a book of philosophy. It requires more than one reading. It is helpful if one has read Heidegger or Badiou. But stating it like this can be off-putting. Nihil Unbound is also a book that poses the question of what thought is, for us, today – thought in the era of disaster movies and discourses on climate change. If it requires more than one reading, it is because it is like any good book. And if it makes reference to Badiou or Heidegger, this is less to canonize them and more to suggest the relevance of the contingencies of their own ideas. Perhaps, then, we can say that for Brassier, nihilism is something like the arch-villainy of thought: “Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity” (xi).

Last Updated 1 February, 2009

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